Richland County flip-flops on tax break for student apartments near USC stadium

Richland County Council reversed course from a decision it made two weeks ago and on Tuesday decided to offer a 10-year, 33 percent property-tax break for a proposed student apartment complex.

Florida-based developer Reign Living has indicated it plans to build student apartments with more than 500 bedrooms on Shop Road, roughly between Williams-Brice Stadium and River Rat Brewery, according to paperwork previously submitted to Columbia officials.

If the project moves forward, the owner will save nearly $4 million on property taxes over the next decade. After the 10-year incentive period, the company will pay the full amount of taxes each year based on the property's value.

Even with the tax break, the site still will generate more revenue for the county than it would if it remained a vacant warehouse or were developed into an office building, Councilman Paul Livingston said.

In addition to spending an expected $30 million to $35 million on the apartment complex, the developer also has agreed to invest $300,000 in building a public park for residents of the surrounding area, which include communities such as Taylors and Little Camden, said Councilwoman Dalhi Myers, who represents the area.

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"It is a huge deal" for the area, which multiple council members described as blighted and in need of revitalization, Myers said. The tax incentive, she said, "is not a throwaway of money down a black hole."

But a $300,000 investment in the community is a drop in the bucket compared to what the developer is saving on taxes, Councilman Greg Pearce argued.

"With the amount of money they're making off this project, if they really wanted to make a difference, they could have made a little bit bigger difference," Pearce said.

Pearce has stood staunchly against offering any new tax incentives for student housing, questioning whether there is a need for encouraging the developments. He also questioned whether the county could face legal challenges from other apartment developers that have been denied tax breaks, or might be denied in the future.

Pearce, along with Councilmen Jim Manning and Seth Rose, voted Tuesday against offering the tax break for Reign.

Columbia City Council already approved the Reign tax break by a 3-2 vote.

About 2.5 years ago, the city and county closed the door on a limited-time offer of property-tax breaks for student apartment developers who invested $40 million or more.

Four apartment complexes, all located in downtown Columbia, secured the 10-year, 50 percent tax reduction, resulting in some 2,700 new bedrooms for college students being added downtown. One of the four, on Assembly Street across from the S.C. State House, remains under construction and is leasing apartments for the upcoming fall semester.

But Richland County Council shot down a fifth developer's request for the tax break for student apartments planned at the BullStreet development, with some council members, including Pearce, arguing that the student-housing market was becoming saturated and there was no need to offer a building incentive.