IN THEIR zeal to move Columbia to the next level — and I believe it’s headed there — leaders must not blow the bank or cede control over how the city develops.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s appropriate — and in some cases necessary — for city officials to provide limited, reasonable financial incentives and more relaxed regulations to aid private investors, particularly in developing blighted areas or redeveloping dormant property.
But city leaders can’t afford to give away so much public money that they can’t deliver quality services and meet the needs of long-term residents who have stuck with Columbia through the good and bad, and who even now patiently await renewal and development reaching their neighborhoods.
And while it makes sense for the city to help developers and others wade through delays and confusing red tape as they seek to build projects expected to add to the explosive growth anticipated in our capital city, being “business friendly” must not threaten quality of life, aesthetics and neighborhood integrity.
Let’s not get caught up in the moment — excited about what the next deal could bring — and make commitments that aren’t in Columbia’s best interest.
Hey, I get it. Columbia is on the cusp of something big. We must seize the moment. But good stewardship, due diligence and sound decision-making are needed now more than ever.
I understand the need to jump-start the Bull Street development by helping to provide water, sewer and roads. Columbia Common could transform downtown — and the rest of the Midlands. This state-owned property sat mostly unused for years, adding little to the life and economy of the city. But how far should the city go? It already has gone too far in promising to provide all the infrastructure and be the major backer of a publicly owned ballpark for a private minor league baseball team.
I understand the push to give property tax breaks — of the 50 percent variety — to apartment complexes that house students. But why redirect hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes annually that should go toward city and county services and schools in order to incent projects that are going to be built anyway?
I can understand giving special approval to allow an Atlanta-based development firm to build a $50 million student housing complex at Gervais and Harden streets. But what’s the purpose of City Council amending the city’s zoning ordinance to allow student-targeted apartments on that property and any other C-3 general commercial zoning district in the city? I understand there’s a stipulation that no other private dormitory can be allowed in C-3 areas after Jan. 1 because city staffers are working on overhauling all zoning laws. But why not simply deal with the Gervais and Harden development? Why throw open the doors of the entire city?
What gives? Is the city open for the taking? Make us an offer, because we can’t refuse?
A word of caution to council members. Slow your roll — of the dice, I mean. Manage your risks.
While it’s perfectly appropriate to help jump-start development, it’s imperative that Columbia leaders not give in so much to developers and business interests — or even USC — that they lose control over the development of this town and lose sight of their duty to serve the people of Columbia.
Believe it or not, those folks are watching. They’re waiting to see where they fit in this coming boom.
People still remember all the public money poured into the Vista, an investment that paid off mightily: The once-blighted area is now a bustling restaurant and shopping district, a focal point of the Midlands. But many long-time Columbians have been waiting for similar investments in their neighborhoods and adjoining ailing corridors.
Council members Tameika Isaac Devine and Sam Davis know the people I’m talking about: Those who live along North Main Street, Farrow Road, adjacent corridors and parts of east central Columbia.
Those two council members have led the charge to address long-neglected areas that have waited for success to spread outside of the city center. I haven’t always supported their proposed funding methods, such as a dedicated tax increment financing district, but they’ve been right to target efforts to improve those areas.
The council can’t forget those long-time residents who chose to stay and support the city when many others were moving out to the suburbs. Columbia’s impending explosion must be as much about its neighborhoods as it is about its downtown.
Yes, securing Columbia’s city center is Job 1. But, ultimately, developers and business owners must fund and sustain their own projects.
Columbia officials have a much bigger responsibility: to maintain the greater city. They must strike an appropriate balance between providing enough help to get private investment rolling while not diverting too much money or attention away from the health and welfare of the entire city.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.