Community members expressed concerns and asked questions about the Richland Renaissance project on Thursday in the first public forum on the subject since former County Administrator Gerald Seals was fired on April 3.
Richland County Council members, along with county administrative staff, took questions and fielded comments from citizens and small business owners in the Dutch Square area concerning the redevelopment plan, approved by a 6-5 vote in December.
The plan includes new administrative offices at the site of Columbia Place Mall, a new courthouse and judicial campus in downtown Columbia and a Lower Richland-centered services hub.
Council members seemed split on the progress of the project with Seals gone.
Council chair Joyce Dickerson said her staff has not missed a beat and continues to work hard. Councilman Norman Jackson said the project should move forward with little to no changes.
Councilman Calvin Jackson, however, said the Renaissance was the vision of Seals, and he can’t see how it won’t be more difficult going forward. “I still support the project,” Calvin Jackson said. “Hopefully, the heavy lifting has already been done.”
Along questions about the pace of the project, council members said they are hearing concerns about its budget. The project is estimated to cost $144 million, and Richland County has said it will be paid for without tax increases, potentially through a combination of land sales, bond anticipation notes and installment purchase revenue bonds.
Calvin Jackson said he hopes the project will stay in the $144 million range, but if the numbers change drastically, he said the council will have to go back to the discussion table to make sure it is affordable.
“People should not get worked up or assume we have made any determinations yet,” Calvin Jackson said. “You have to have a starting point, and we’re not too far down the road that we can’t adjust and modify.”
Jay Kilmartin, owner of the Melting Pot Restaurant, said parts of the plan remind him of the Ronald Reagan quote: “I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
“I think the project could be huge or a complete waste of taxpayer dollars,” Kilmartin said. “That scares the crap out of me.”
Part of the Renaissance plans include the Start Center, a multimodal transportation center, business incubator and tourism hub in the Broad River Road/St. Andrews area. Thursday’s meeting was held at the former Havertys furniture store on Colonial Life Boulevard, which the county recently purchased for that purpose.
As a small business owner, Kilmartin said he will have a tough decision to make when his lease comes up. “If we make a move, we take on more debt, but if we stay, I’m at the mercy of whether the area gets redeveloped,” he said.
He said his business has been stagnant, but sees it getting better with the addition of a new Planet Fitness in Dutch Square Mall.
“We are one of the best hubs on the interstate, and have people coming from Augusta because it’s a straight shot,” he said.
Kilmartin spoke with Calvin Jackson, who he said told him the project is in its preliminary stages. Kilmartin hopes someone on the council will take up where Seals left off with the project and gain traction within the group while also keeping the community in the loop.
As far as the estimated $144 million project cost, Kilmartin is skeptical.
“It’s a government project, which means I expect it to double, and I expect a 1% sales tax because that’s the way the government operates,” he said.