A Day in the Life

Livoti: Columbia finally taking off, thanks to public investments

It is all coming together.

The New Year's Eve celebration in Columbia symbolized it well: People of all ages, races and income levels braved the cold just because they were happy. And optimistic about the future.

They have a right to be optimistic, because Mayor Steve Benjamin, a majority of the City Council, the business community and civic leadership developed a vision and are implementing it. It is a sight to behold.

The State recently documented what is happening. Investments downtown have skyrocketed to more than $1 billion in three years. And that's just counting the 42 projects of more than $1 million each; there are countless more smaller projects.

The numbers also don't reflect the primary game-changer: the Bull Street development that a Chamber of Commerce study projects will generate $1.2 billion a year in economic activity, create 11,000 jobs and provide millions of dollars in tax revenue to local government.

More than 40 retailers and restaurants have signed letters of intent to build on the site, representing about half the retail space that will be available, and the baseball park is moving along.

While everyone is excited about the new USC business and law schools and the tremendous impact they will have, it's important to remember that they do not pay property taxes. That's why all the private-sector activity is critical to the city's future.

We've come far. As a long-time Columbia businessman, I remember the pall cast over the city when SCANA moved across the river, taking jobs and economic activity to Cayce and leaving us with a big empty building in the heart of the city.

I recall reading about the historic buildings on the Bull Street property that literally were rotting from the inside out, and wondering how in the world state government could be so incredibly incompetent to let it happen. Adding insult to injury is a state law that values renovation of old textile buildings more than historic properties such as the Babcock building.

I remember all of the hoopla created when Mast General Store announced that it was buying the old Lourie's building, and thinking what a sorry state of affairs we were in to treat the opening of one store with such excitement.

I recall the knock on Columbia from outside investors, job creators and entrepreneurs: You can't do business with the city because the bureaucrats and special interests control the politicians and will not let the private sector flourish.

And for a while that seemed to be the case. From 2010 to 2012, Columbia's growth rate was 1.5 percent compared to Charleston's 4.3 percent and Greenville's 2.7 percent. Columbia's growth rate even lagged behind the state as a whole, which was 2.1 percent.

Because of the lack of growth, Columbia's property tax rate has been higher than Greenville and Charleston. The businesses and individuals who stayed in Columbia had to share a greater burden in taxes because of stagnant growth patterns, a situation exacerbated by the migration of young people to "cooler" cities.

But that's history. As columnist Warren Bolton wrote last week, "Columbia's city core is well positioned to become the vibrant social, cultural and economic hub the Midlands needs to thrive."

This progress was decades in the making, but make no mistake: Without the tough and hard-fought votes by Mayor Benjamin and a majority of City Council to approve the development agreement and infrastructure for Bull Street, build the new minor league baseball stadium and provide tax fairness for student housing, this boom would not be happening.

We should all be proud of our city and its leaders, and excited to see the vision becoming reality.

Read more here.

Mr. Livoti is president of a Columbia advertising agency and former general sales manager of WIS-TV and WACH-TV; contact him at jdlmarketing@bellsouth.net.