With Richland Renaissance project halted, county defends $8 million in spending

RICHLAND COUNTY, SC (WIS) - A plan to revitalize several parts of Richland County with an initial price tag of $144 million is off the table, after a contentious county council vote Thursday night.

The Richland County Renaissance plan would aim to make county government more accessible to residents by moving county offices to the site of Columbia Place Mall on Two Notch Road. The county courthouse would move from its current location on Main Street to where the county offices are now at the corner of Hampton and Harden Streets. It also includes an aquatic center in Lower Richland, a historic trail and an effort to "revivify" blighted areas.

The plan was initially unveiled in December 2017 without any public input and, after passing a council vote, the county moved forward with purchasing property and buildings in preparation for the project.

The county has been eying up a piece of land off Broad River Road near Dutch Square Mall as the future site of a transportation hub and visitors center. The county was poised to spend between two and three million dollars for the land. The closing date for the sale is May 30. But Thursday night's meeting resulted in a 7-4 vote to pump the breaks on the entire project.

Council members who voted in favor of halting the project include Dickerson, Kennedy, Jackson, Malinowski, Rose, and Pearce. Those voting against stopping the project were Chip Jackson, McBride, Myers, and Livingston.

As a result of tabling the project, the county will lose money as a result of the contract it signed with the owner of the land near Dutch Square Mall.

"We have $20,000 earnest money the seller has said you're not getting back and there's also some language in the property that could be attorney fees from preparing the contract," Jim Manning, who voted in favor of stopping the project, said. "We've heard $37,000 but we don't know if that's accurate or not."

Manning said at Thursday night's meeting, several council members were unsure of when they voted to give authorization for the county administration to enter into a contract.

"Back in December when we rolled it out and approved the plan, that was the overarching approval for the administration to enter into a contract at any time," Manning said.

He voted against the rollout of the project in December.

Manning said the county has spent about $8 million thus far on building and land acquisitions. With the project halted, he said it is not money wasted, but rather invested.

"I hear people say there has been money thrown away, but when you buy property that's an investment," Manning said. "We still need to deal with the courthouse, which is where this whole plan began eight or nine years ago."

Rashaad Egister, a resident of Richland County, said he was happy to find out about the council's decision to halt the project.

"I'm still skeptical," Egister said. "I still feel like us owning a few extra buildings in the county…what is going to be done with those buildings and how can we give those buildings back to the private sector?"

While Manning defends the council's spending of $8 million in taxpayer dollars, Egister said he does not see it as an investment in the county's future.

"I, for sure, feel like at this point my tax dollars have been wasted," Egister said. "I don't see it as an investment at all, I see this as an opportunity to grow when we've completely forgotten about the Richland County Renaissance."

Egister said public input should have been taken before the project was unveiled in December.

"The fact that this was unveiled asking for public support when it was proposed without public support was just a no-go from the very beginning," Egister said.

Manning said the council's vote Thursday night to "defer" the plans for the project means it will not be acted on or discussed moving forward unless a council member makes a motion at a future meeting to explore the options again.

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