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New study questions building $65M Columbia convention center garage

Outside View of CMCC at Night.jpg (copy)

The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. File

COLUMBIA — A new study questions how much Richland County taxpayers might be asked to pay for a new parking garage near an expanded downtown convention center.

According to the study commissioned by state Rep. Kirkman Finlay and Columbia City Council candidate Joe Taylor, the county would be asked to borrow $130 million for the construction and operation of a parking garage in the Vista with more than 1,600 new spaces. 

The estimated construction cost of that garage is $65 million. The study, drafted by Chris Shefelton, a consultant and former researcher at the Statehouse, could not account for the difference in cost and loan estimates.

County Council member Joe Walker, who attended the study's release on Oct. 7, said that, under one proposal, developer Ben Arnold could use the garage's revenue as part of his capital for his adjoining redevelopment project that would include three hotels. 

Arnold did not immediately return requests seeking comment.

Finlay, a Columbia Republican, and Taylor, a former state commerce secretary, spent more than $10,000 because they believed that the community needed more data to make a decision about going forward with the convention center plans.

Taylor, who is running unopposed for the District 4 council seat, said he could support a convention center expansion, but only if the arrangement is "a very good deal for the city of Columbia."

Finlay and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin have clashed in the past over funding for the new convention center, with Benjamin blaming Finlay for the Midlands' effort to get state funds for the project receiving $9 million, while other parts of the state have received up to $19 million for similar projects.

According to the study, the revenue estimates put forward for the new parking deck are so large that they eventually exceed all funds now coming in from all city parking garages and lots.

If the expanded convention center does not draw major new visitors to fill the parking garage, the taxpayers could owe $37 million or more to cover the garage loan's cost, according to Shefelton's study.

The county should build a garage that can generate enough revenue to cover its costs and not take money from general tax revenues for it, Richland County Council Chairman Paul Livingston said.

He supports an expanded convention center and expects the details on the convention center and parking garage to be worked on by county council in November, he said.

The county might need to go further than it has in previous deals or structure things differently to get major new growth, Livingston said.

"We have to do things differently sometimes," he said.

Advocates for expanding the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center have argued that the venue is too small to attract big events, which end up going to other event centers in South Carolina or the Southeast.

Paired with the expansion plans is a proposal from Arnold, who owns about 12 acres adjacent to the center in the Vista. He has proposed a major redevelopment, including up to three hotels and other businesses, but Arnold said he would pursue the hotels only after a convention center expansion is approved.

The study's author is a former researcher in the office of Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia. While in his office, Shefelton contributed research on issues, such as earmarks tucked in the state budget and economic incentives to bring the Carolina Panthers offices to the state.

Another part of the Shefelton study focuses on estimates of how many additional customers the convention center might attract.

One study being used to promote the convention center expansion predicts an increase in visits by almost 150 percent immediately and by 172 percent five years in, Shefelton reported.

That stands in contrast, Shefelton said, to the current data about why events have chosen to go elsewhere. Only a few events have cited the convention center's size as an issue, according to his review. 

A more often cited problem, according to the data in the study, is the limited flight options at Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

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