Too often for our own good, Columbians have been sold grandiose visions by both local and outside groups, developers and alliances which have traditionally left the taxpayers holding the bag.
Remember Air South, Innovista and the hydrogen economy? How about the convention center hotel “dream team” and the original CCI development? In each case, the city forged forward and spent lots of taxpayer dollars to help start up, carry through and then clean up the mess.
The Bull Street Redevelopment Project was sold as a transformative deal for Columbia, a needle-mover both for quality of life and economic development thanks to the approximately 165 acres of tax-exempt land coming back on the tax rolls.
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Indeed, so heady was the praise for Greenville developer Bob Hughes’ project — which in 2015 boasted nearly 60 letters of intent in hand from restaurants and retailers, promised 11,000 new jobs and thousands of single- and multi-family homes — that Columbia City Council called it “a defining moment in the city’s history. “
Instead of a thriving commercial-residential center, Bull Street has become another Sandhill, only with the baseball stadium that its developer asked the county to build to anchor his 300-acre mixed-use gambit: an underbuilt commercial center long on costs, short on return or private sector interest.
Sandhill’s financial problems forced it into a $100 million Chapter 11 filing in 2014; any sort of similar outcome for Bull Street could be catastrophic for the future of an enormous piece of our city’s history that deserves the best efforts of its stewards.
With USC committed to building its new $200 million medical school and health sciences complex at the site, it’s not as if there’s no hope, and recent announcements such as new luxury town homes and senior living apartments are a start.
The city is contractually obligated to spend what could be $40 million on two 800-space parking garages in the Bull Street neighborhood if certain thresholds are met in addition to the $35 million already spent on the baseball park plus the additional $30 million for a 19-acre public park, infrastructure and service roads.
Since the expected property-tax revenue from the site hasn’t materialized, why not examine lowering the density, use surface parking rather than garages and create a municipal improvement district to generate fees to cover the development cost from entities such as USC, whose property isn’t taxable, and others that locate within the site? With such a financial mechanism, couldn’t a component of Bull Street going forward then include new state or local government buildings, a new county courthouse, county and city offices?
If nothing else, creating a municipal improvement district shifts the financial burden of the area’s development away from taxpayers who see no economic benefit to invested entities that do — or will.
We’re in the midst of perhaps the best economy of the modern era, and if it isn’t happening now at Bull Street, it likely won’t anytime soon. Rather than ignore the problem or wish it away, the right thing to do is acknowledge the reality by bringing concerned parties together to map out a recovery plan that lowers the city’s risk.
The only people who wanted to see Bull Street go down in flames left town 150 years ago. Working together, we can make sure this “defining moment” isn’t remembered quite so poorly.