We need a plan!
In order to both: (1) compete with our peer cities (Austin, Raleigh, etc.) we must have an economic toolkit that allows for us to be competitive and (2) we must have a strategic, targeted direction that we plan to work towards as a community.
Prior to 2013, the question was how do we as a community create the environment for economic growth?
Through the use of tax credits specifically focused on student housing, Columbia saw over $1 billion in investment. The tax credits were granted on a singular basis and had to be approved by City and County Council in each instance. Now, Columbia’s largest taxpayer is student housing. Those tax credits granted student housing developers a 10-year tax abatement of 50% of their property tax burden. So, for example, a property valued at $20,000 prior to being developed may have a property tax value of $2 million after being developed. With the credit, for the first 10 years the property would pay half of the $2 million, so $1 million in annual property taxes. Then, after 10 years, the property owner is responsible for the full tax value of $2 million.
This use of tax credits helped produce what has become our community’s largest taxpayer.
Now, we know economic growth is possible. We must use economic tools, like tax credits, to diversify our economic growth. We need to utilize our community’s low-hanging fruit like the presence of our higher education institutions, the presence of our hospitals, the insurance industry, and our military installations, to attract growth and incentivize opportunities that allow us to retain talent here in Columbia. Those opportunities exist in areas like the insurance technology, health care technology, cultural tourism (i.e. film) and defense technology spaces.
We have to shape these incentives into an economic toolkit that allows us to be competitive with our southeastern municipal peers.
And, as we grow, we have to have a plan that determines how we will utilize the revenue that is generated to (1) lower our tax burden, which allows us to be more competitive, and (2) strategically reinvest in our community.
Strategically Reinvest in Columbia
There are some major opportunities that will take Columbia to new heights. Some are current conversations like expanding our Convention Center. Others have been longterm conversations like developing our riverfront and renovating Finlay Park. As we determine which opportunities are the most appropriate for us to take advantage of, we must be strategic with our community’s resources.
What will yield the greatest return on investment? Which opportunities should be prioritized and which are less pressing? Which opportunities provide a chance to leverage public-private partnerships?
As a community, we must determine what our priorities are and then determine how we efficiently facilitate getting them done.
As Mayor, I will work with our community to identify those priorities and provide the leadership to get them done.
In order to grow we must operate in the most efficient manner possible. We can no longer require parties interested in helping our city to grow and do business here to have to jump through hoops unnecessarily.
As a community we should explore consolidating city and county departments that help make it easier to get things done. Departments like Community Development, Economic Development, and Planning & Zoning.
For example, we should explore if consolidating our Community Development departments provides more capacity to address our housing challenges. Or, if consolidating our Economic Development departments streamlines the development process. Or, if consolidating our Planning & Zoning departments simplifies and expedites the process for those seeking guidance and approvals.
Develop an Economic Toolkit
If we’re to be competitive with the Austin’s, the Raleigh’s, any of our peers, we must have the tools necessary. Without it, we’re not even in the game.
We must have a broad economic tool that allows us to mitigate our high property tax burden, retain our talent, and attract more young families to our community. We have to have a toolkit that uses tools like tax credits, our water/sewer system, business license fees, among others to showcase to the world that Columbia is open for business.
The City’s property tax study makes recommendations. However, several of those recommendations require action from the General Assembly. While the Legislature has studied the challenges that exist in state tax code twice, there have yet to be any enacted solutions. We must have a toolkit featuring a local strategy within our own control. We can’t wait on the state to fix our challenges.
This tool must be used to attract taxable revenue that allows us to begin to shift the brunt of the tax burden and attract the types of wages and opportunities the citizens of Columbia deserve.
The last decade has shown us that we can utilize the tax credit model to accomplish this goal.
But, the conversation doesn’t stop there.
As a City, we must strategically determine how we utilize the growth in tax revenue gained from our economic incentives.
We most focus on attracting knowledge economy opportunities in the healthcare technology and insurance technology clusters. Areas where we are prime for growth by providing wage reimbursement and property tax abatement.
A City, A County & A School District
The next mayor of Columbia must have the ability to work alongside the leaders of Richland County Council and the Richland One School Board. In the age range of 25 to 45, Columbia lags behind its peer cities. We cannot see economic growth, if we don’t have young, talented families.
When it comes to quality of life, Columbia must be competitive. Potential citizens and interested companies must know that Columbia has one of the best school systems to offer.
So, the next mayor has to be able to work alongside its peer local government agencies to determine how we offer the very best education in the most efficient manner possible. We have to have a collective strategy that reduces our property tax burden.
Economic Overlay Districts
There are areas of Columbia that have disproportionately not seen development and economic growth. We have to embrace new ideas like economic overlay districts, which allow us an opportunity to drive much needed development like grocery stores and pharmacies to those communities.
Economic Overlay Districts allow a city to create layers of incentives in specificied zones.
Mindset & Culture
From visiting groups like GrowCo to the numerous discussions around retaining our talent, we have to engage in activities that will force our community to change its mindset and shift the culture around economic development in Columbia.
Communities that are thriving and retaining their talent are communities that have created a culture for startups and where bright ideas go to be around other bright ideas.
Our incentive package has to generate revenue so that the package can provide grants to help encourage new startups and businesses to grow here in Columbia.
We have to build a culture within the City of Columbia (and our partner municipal agencies) and reputation of being a City that makes it easier for business to succeed than being the government that presents challenges.
“Success breeds success. Confidence is contagious. Momentum is our gasoline that makes this car run.” – Chris Heivly