Columbia Looks for Way to Improve Downtown

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COLUMBIA - Columbia city leaders told KOMU 8 News Tuesday they now face a longer uphill climb in finding ways to improve downtown infrastructure.

The city council voted down 5-2 Monday night a list of projects that would be funded by a central city tax increment financing, or TIF district. The list of projects included nearly $20 million worth of immediate needs and $50 million worth of long-term facelift projects.

Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine told KOMU 8 News that procedurally, the council basically killed the TIF idea. St. Romaine and utility directors froze development downtown in recent months, saying the infrastructure could not handle more development.

The city manager's office pushed to get a TIF in place, saying it was the only viable option for getting downtown ready for hungry developers.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala told KOMU 8 News he is glad the city froze development because it gives leaders the opportunity to come up with long-term solutions for downtown. He said his constituents did not support the TIF idea and he voted against it. Skala said the city now needs to find a more politically popular way to thaw the freeze on downtown development.

"Moving forward the idea that everything is going to cease downtown is nonsense," Skala said. "We ought to rebalance this issue about the public and private contribution to infrastructure and the impact on infrastructure."

Skala said Columbia was long a smaller community with an appetite for development and the public paid for a greater share of the services needed to accommodate more residents.

Now, Skala said residents are telling the council they want the developers to increase their share of the cost.

Skala and the other city council members have identified some other methods for funding needed infrastructure improvements.

Skala and councilman Ian Thomas said the city could increase developer impact fees, fees that are assessed to developers and are calculated by taking into account the impact the project will have on surrounding infrastructure.

"Classically or historically in this town we have encouraged growth or subsidized the growth to the tune of maybe a 90 percent public contribution to 10 percent private contribution or maybe 80/20, somewhere in that range," Skala said. "We can no longer continue to do that."

Skala said the city could also increase the user fees charged to developers for the roads. The city charges $0.50 per square foot for residential or commercial properties, regardless of how the property is used. Skala said a convenience store that contributes 17 times as much traffic should be paying much more for its impact on the infrastructure.

Skala and other city council members also mentioned raising taxes or issuing bonds.

Columbia voters passed a more than $30 million sewer bond issue last year and most of the bonds are paying off routine maintenance projects. The bonds are also paying for new extensions of sewers outside of the "urban service area."

Skala said the city could look at moving the downtown sewer projects ahead of the extensions of sewers outside the urban service area.

Skala also said the city could look at moving the downtown projects ahead of other scheduled infrastructure improvements throughout the city.

Skala said he spoke with St. Romaine Tuesday and St. Romaine said the city could create a cocktail of different funding methods to improve downtown.

St. Romaine said nearly $200 million of private investment wanted to come into downtown this year. He said the TIF was a way to ensure the improvements would be made quickly, because some of the other options could take a year or two to get in place when some developers want their high rise towers to appear in the downtown skyline within two years.

"When developers bring us plans they basically ask us to sign of on a will service that basically says we will be able to serve them for electric, water, stormwater needs," St. Romaine said. "At this point basically the answer right now is we cannot."

St. Romaine said he would work with city staff and the city council to find new ways to fix the infrastructure problems, but he said many development proposals are probably off the table because the city will not be able to serve them in a timely fashion.