As Columbia City Council faces a flood of requests for multimillion-dollar renovations at arts and entertainment venues, Mayor Steve Benjamin said he plans to propose a public construction loan that would be repaid with years of taxes collected from restaurant and bar patrons.
But the proposal, which still is being crafted, is running into some push back. Business and arts activists say some groups – primarily ballet companies – are not in line for the money. A bond would commit the city for some 30 years and leave less to pay for festivals and other events that draw thousands of visitors to Columbia, skeptics such as Councilman Cameron Runyan say.
Some long-sought, big-ticket items are not on Benjamin’s list for a meal tax bond of up to $6 million. Neither the $20 million remake of Finlay Park nor a fully public performing arts center are being considered under his plan, Benjamin said. The bond, which amounts to a loan, would be repaid from annual revenue collected for what the law calls “hospitality” tax. That is a 2 percent levy on all prepared meals and beverages sold in the city.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge from the beginning that not everyone is going to get what they want,” Benjamin said. He will submit his proposal this fall, the mayor said. “I think we’re talking maybe four to six million,” Benjamin said of a bond.
City Hall staff is evaluating requests, which exceed $7 million from about 10 organizations. The staff is creating a mechanism for applications and will determine which projects would qualify for H-tax funding, Budget Director Missy Caughman said. State law limits use of the tax revenue to groups or events that attract visitors, who then spend money in stores, restaurants, bars and other places. How the bond would be structured also has not been finalized.
“That’s a heavy list and we don’t have the money,” said Runyan, who is seeking re-election in November. Benjamin “has made it very clear that he intended to have it voted on before the election,” Runyan said.
“Absent cutting some of the groups some more, I don’t know whether the money is there,” Runyan said.
He estimates the annual debt payment for a $6 million loan would approach $500,000. That would leave roughly a half-million dollars less for scores of organizations funded by meal taxes.
Bobby Williams, head of the Columbia Restaurant Association, said he’s skeptical, though he’s yet to meet with Benjamin to review the plan. “It cuts the pot,” Williams said of yearly debt payments. “And a lot of these arts groups depend on that money.”
There is keen competition for the funds, which this fiscal year are projected to reach $10.4 million. The city’s finance office projects the pot will grow to $12.7 million in three more fiscal years.
Many of the applicants for the loan already get funding from meal taxes, mostly for operations and advertising their events.
The latest batch of requests are for brick-and-mortar improvements or a new home entirely, as in the case of Workshop Theatre. Its home was torn down to make way for the new University of South Carolina Law School.
At least three theater groups have asked for public money, according to submissions received by the city. Some requests are years old. Town Theater, however, asked only recently, though it has not detailed how much funding it wants or precisely how it would spend the money.
Benjamin mentioned the prospects of a construction bond during a March 17 work session. He told the then-leader of Trustus Theatre, which was seeking a onetime, $250,000 allocation for upgrades, to hold the request until details of a such a loan could be worked out.
Word about the loan circulated through the arts community.
Shannon Scruggs, the new director of Town Theatre, said, “We wanted to get our name in the hat.” The Town Theatre board has yet to vote on a proposal, she said.
“I heard it through the arts grapevine,” said John Whitehead, leader of the Columbia Music Festival Association. “I just wanted to get on the bandwagon.” His organization wants $1.5 million for a top-to-bottom renovation of its aging headquarters in the Innovista.
The Music Festival, which represents 26 mostly smaller arts groups, provides its building to 22,000 to 23,000 people yearly, Whitehead said.
“We know we’re in a prime area (the burgeoning Innovista on the west side of the USC campus),” he said. “We know we look like we’re in Tobacco Road. We need a general overhaul. We know we’re going to have to do something.”
The Music Festival has no fundraising campaign for its own building and diverting money to a central performing arts theater is inadvisable, Whitehead said. “Everyone knows what we need,” he said of a central, community theater, “and nothing happens. Everyone is lending their own experiences to their futures. Why would we want to take funding that we know is out there on a smaller scale and divert it?”
Lee Lumpkin, chairwoman of the board of Columbia Classical Ballet, said her organization is not eligible because it is not seeking meal tax money for construction, only operations. Columbia Classical Ballet’s budget has been cut by 23 percent in three years to $125,000, she said.
But Lumpkin said she does not want the city’s two ballet companies left out. Her organization is seeking direct funding from council rather than having to apply through a citizens’ committee that dispenses about 30 percent of annual meal tax revenue.
“I don’t want us to be lost in the shuffle,” Lumpkin said.
Staff writer Tim Flach contributed to this article. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Arts, other organizations seeking millions in public money
Nonprofits, mostly arts groups, have asked the city of Columbia for some $7 million for construction projects using largely meal-tax revenues. City leaders are devising an application process for their requests and examining whether they qualify for use of taxes collected from patrons who eat or drink prepared meals or beverages.
▪ $1.8 million requested by Historic Columbia Foundation mostly to build a historic garden and pathways that would connect downtown historic districts.
▪ $1.5 million by the Columbia Music Festival for major renovations of its headquarters in the Innovista.
▪ $1 million by the Columbia Museum of Art for renovations.
▪ $1 million by the Girl Scouts of the Midlands to help build a Leadership Center in the Vista.
▪ $502,000 by EdVenture for an aerospace and expanded outdoor water exhibits.
▪ $300,000 by Workshop Theatre for a new facility, possibly off Elmwood Avenue.
▪ $250,000 by Trustus Theatre for overall renovations and the construction of a cabaret that would feature local and regional performers.
▪ Town Theatre has asked for assistance but has not devised a specific plan.
SOURCE: Requests submitted to City Hall or city officials