Opinion Extra

What is keeping our city from becoming an economic center?

The State file photo

We’ve been hearing so much about the ways Columbia has changed in recent years. I wonder if our city has made strides in the right direction, since it seems the media and our elected officials find ways to overlook the most pressing issues we face today.

Our media, city leaders and elected officials should be studying and discussing several critical items that can help Columbia become an economic, academic and tourist center.

I’m curious why we don’t see cranes downtown. Have you been to Charlotte, Charleston or Greenville lately to see what’s happening there? To my knowledge, there’s not a single new taxable commercial construction project in downtown Columbia right now. Not one new project during a national real estate boom? What’s the reason – taxes, regulations, something else? How do we expect our city to flourish if we’re not actively drawing new investment?

It seems nobody is asking why. Why are many corners of major intersections in our city vacant or under-invested? Have you seen Gervais at Assembly or Huger or Millwood? There’s little to no activity – no retail, no dining, no commerce.

How can we say our city is thriving with these major gaps?

The city also isn’t aggressively annexing other areas. If the percentage of nontaxable real estate is really the issue, wouldn’t it be logical to change the percentage?

The economic issues we face seem to be intertwined, and solvable.

For one thing, we must find ways to encourage a sense of pride. When folks from out of town enter Columbia, via I-26, I-277, Gervais Street or Bluff Road, do they find beauty or trash and weeds? What does that suggest to them?

Do citizens feel safe on our streets? Can you honestly say public safety is high priority for local government? I believe one of the best ways to improve our city is by making our commercial areas places where people feel safe. This is critical for our city’s future.

Take Five Points. It’s an economic hub, a center of commerce, yet absolutely needs revitalization. Why are there no hotels or “white tablecloth” restaurants? There are no parking garages and little visible police presence on foot. Where are the beat cops? How can we make Five Points an economic vehicle to help drive city improvement?

We must find ways to reduce bureaucracy and allow people not only to beautify their property, but invest in our community.

This all prompts me to ask the deeper question.

Are we better off as a community than 10 years ago?

Frankly, we’ve raised the price of living in Columbia while killing ourselves with regulations and taxes. Electric bills contain a 5 percent city franchise fee. We have the highest sales tax in the state; hospitality taxes, a transportation tax, plus our water, sewer and storm drainage rates are higher. We’re spending more, but we aren’t seeing discernible improvements.

It’s time we expected more. We’re paying the money, but our elected officials and city staff aren’t making changes necessary for new construction or commerce to land here. We all want to see Columbia become the economic center it can be. The roadblocks are clear, but not insurmountable.

Those of us who have lived here for years have watched this community evolve, but there’s so much more potential. If our elected officials, our media and those working to build our city focus on removing the roadblocks rather than adding even more, our future can be bright.

Mr. Taylor served as S.C. Secretary of Commerce from February 2005- January 2011.