WHILE it is appropriate and prudent for Columbia to help pay for infrastructure such as water, sewer and roads to aid in the development of the old State Hospital site on Bull Street, the city isn’t obligated to break the bank.
On the contrary, Columbia’s leaders must exercise wisdom, good stewardship and due care in determining just how much to invest in helping promote development of this property.
Without a doubt, the city should play a key role in making this project a success. The fact that it could transform downtown Columbia and have a significant impact on the Midlands’ culture and economy is alone reason enough to extend aid. In addition, this property has sat mostly unused for years, adding little to the life and economy of the city; as state-owned property, it has not generated property taxes. The potential tax revenue and increased commerce and vitality generated by a fully developed Bull Street warrant city involvement.
Equally important, the city strengthens its position to help shape the development by investing in the Bull Street project. Columbia will be — and should be — asking the developer to make certain concessions in reference to zoning and other regulations; providing incentives aids that effort. It is critical for the city to have the leverage — along with cooperation from the developer — to insist on rules that protect the public interest and ensure quality while also giving the developer the latitude to benefit from his investment.
But barring a supremely compelling argument to the contrary, funding 100 percent of the infrastructure should not be Columbia’s goal or responsibility. Ultimately, it’s the developer’s job and responsibility to fund and manage this project.
Greenville developer Bob Hughes has not made a formal request, but he has indicated he could need up to $40 million for improvements. We don’t know what the amount should be, but $40 million — double what Mr. Hughes initially estimated — strikes us as too much. And specifically, Columbia should not provide any money toward a possible baseball stadium that has been discussed for the site; taxpayers should not subsidize professional sports stadiums, many of which depend far too much on government-backed parks and arenas. Minor league baseball teams tend to be expensive to attract and even more expensive to retain — for modest return.
As the council negotiates with Mr. Hughes, it must depend on professional staff and wise, informed counsel to determine the right level of funding taxpayers should provide. And whatever the level, the city should reject the urge to use a tax increment financing district to fund this development — or other projects in north Columbia. It will take years to complete the development; the infrastructure can be built and paid for in phases, with City Council setting aside new tax revenue generated from the project each year rather than implementing a special tax district.
However the city funds infrastructure, it must strike an appropriate balance between providing enough help to give this one-of-a-kind, potentially transformative project a significant boost while not diverting too many public dollars away from their greater purpose of supporting overall city services.