Councilman: Funding for ‘The Landing’ in jeopardy if city moves ahead with $1.4M ‘streetscape’ plan

Planned improvements will allow The Landing to be closed to vehicular traffic. (Courtesy image)
Russ Jehl

Some City Council members are warning crucial funding for the $35 million redevelopment of an historic downtown block will be jeopardized by plans to spend another $1.43 million in public funds on new sidewalks, lights, benches and other “streetscape” improvements.

“We’re looking down a dark tunnel, and we shouldn’t go there,” said Russ Jehl, R-2nd, who at a morning news conference with Paul Ensley, R-1st, reminded the developer, the public and the administration of Mayor Tom Henry that when council when approved a $2.5 million Legacy loan for the Columbia Street “Landing” project last year it also voted to rescind the deal if additional public funds were sought.

Jehl insists that will happen Tuesday, when council is asked to consider the proposed infrastructure contract with Strebig Construction.

“It’s an automatic rescission,” Jehl said, noting current plans call for the streetscape improvements to be funded using income taxes that could also pay for streets and sidewalks elsewhere. “This literally would come at the expense of neighborhoods,” he said.

As The News-Sentinel reported in July, the Landing streetscape is designed to create a “pedestrian-friendly plaza which would eliminate the curb and incorporate the street with the surrounding sidewalk areas. Gate features would be added at both the Calhoun and Harrison ends. The gates would open and shut in order to close the street to vehicular traffic during given times.”

Renovation of existing buildings is already well underway, and it is unclear what would happen should council call back the loan from the fund created through the sale of the old city electric utility. “What do you do when you do something you’re not allowed to do?” Jehl asked.

The conflict could be avoided, Jehl said, by tapping other sources of funds for the streetscape — preferably by adding additional private capital.

“This project is 70 percent publicly funded. The developer (Cincinnati-based Model Group) only has 10 percent (invested) which it can take out at closing,” Jehl added.

The cost of streetscape improvements were not included in the project’s costs when council approved the Legacy loan in January 2017. As The News-Sentinel reported that March, Jehl explained he “held my nose and voted for (the loan), but I wanted to protect the taxpayer so I asked for the amendment (rescinding the loan if additional public funds were sought).” Council supported the loan by a 7-2 vote.

But the president of the Downtown Development Trust, the not-for-profit organization that acquired The Landing properties to be redeveloped and selected the Model Group as developer, insisted last year the streetscape funding is consistent with council’s vote on the loan.

“The ‘capital stack’ shown on the Legacy loan application … was specifically for the work that was the responsibility of the Model Group,” Mac Parker said in a statement to The News-Sentinel at the time. It did not include “work that, in everyone’s mind, was later to be a much broader streetscape undertaking by the city that, while not focusing specifically on the Landing alone, would include that project.”

City Redevelopment Director Nancy Townsend added, “It is appropriate to install this portion of downtown streetscape now while construction is underway, thereby ensuring the streets and sidewalks will not need to be re-built twice, costing additional dollars. It is historically city government’s and the Redevelopment Commission’s responsibility to complete streetscape projects . . . The West Columbia streetscape was never part of the Legacy loan requested by the Model Group because it is not part of the developer’s project. The scope of work outlined in the loan request was for the revitalization of seven historic buildings and the construction of one new building.”

When the project successfully applied for $6.9 million from the state’s Regional Cities program, however, the cost of streetscape work was included. That application, Parker explained, “was for the entire project, not just for Model’s eight buildings. This simply enabled the Model Group to leverage the availability of Regional Cities dollars.”