April 2, 2014 10:49:52 AM
In an effort to promote more foot traffic and encourage special events on the newly renovated Old Highway 82 Bridge, Columbus councilmen agreed to temporarily waive rental and insurance fees for six months.
They also approved a recommendation from a committee formed to foster economic development on The Island to convert city-owned land on the west side of the bridge into a park as a temporary place-holder until the site is prime for redevelopment.
A public hearing will be held during the council's May 6 meeting to gather ideas from the public on what should be done with the land.
The committee teamed with the Golden Triangle Development LINK and the Tennessee Valley Authority on a site analysis of the 5.7 acres of property. The recommendations included land conversion into a park, the establishment of a redevelopment authority to foster development on The Island and other blighted city properties, dedicating a portion for commercial and residential use while leaving the remaining land for industry and waiving bridge rental and insurance fees.
Previously, partial closure of the bridge for less than six hours cost $400. Anyone interested in holding a private event there also had to provide a certificate of insurance verifying the event would be covered by $1 million of general liability insurance. The temporary fee and insurance moratorium will be in effect for six months. Anyone wanting to hold an event has to pay a $250 security deposit that will be reimbursed on the condition that the bridge is cleaned after the event is over.
City planning and community development director Christina Berry said public input will be important in crafting the vision of how the area should be utilized.
"We want to see if there's something the community really wants and they will support in developing The Island and other blighted properties throughout the city," Berry said.
TVA, which regularly does development planning throughout its coverage area, filed a report listing suggestions for how the city-owned land could be used, as well as difficulties presented by land uses in surrounding areas.
TVA found that limited access into The Island limits vehicle traffic and stunts the potential for commercial viability. The land's location well below the road elevation could provide a challenge in building a safe entrance into the site from Island Road. The steep drop and limited sight distance coupled with the volume of industrial traffic to Columbus Scrap and the Lowndes-Columbus Port presents a safety issue, the report states. That same volume of truck traffic also presents safety concerns for pedestrians and stirs up dirt. Because the land is in a floodplain, site development costs would be higher than normal and there are more commercially viable sites on the Highway 45 corridor where financing would be better utilized, TVA reported.
An additional impediment to expanding south of Island Road is private property and the fact that the property owners are not currently interested in selling it, according to the study.
TVA concluded that the bridge itself creates opportunity for events and festivals that would generate revenue and would make the site more attractive for development if there's increased foot traffic.
Island committee member and city office of planning and community development assistant George Irby said the excessive fees people have to pay before they can hold an event on the bridge not only discourages them from doing so but encourages them to hold their event while leaving the bridge open for public use.
"We looked at the existing policy on the bridge and felt that there were some obstacles that prevent a lot of use," Irby said. "Checking on what that $1 million insurance policy would cost, I met with the (city insurance) carrier (Eddie Mauck) and was told it was $750 (per event)."
Councilman Charlie Box then said he disagreed with waiving the insurance requirement.
"I don't have any problem with waiving the fee, but I do have some problems with not requiring some type of insurance on an event down there," Box said. "There's liability when you've got 400-to-500 people down there and they're drinking or whatever."
Irby noted that the city already has $500,000 in general liability insurance.
Irby indicated rental of the bridge is already covered under the city's general liability insurance policy. "For anybody to use alcohol, it has to come before you all. That is not part of this request. It's to have events and since you are already covered and you could be sued anyway regardless of if the other one has the insurance," Irby said.
City attorney Jeff Turnage verified that the city is not liable beyond the limits of its coverage.
"However, if there's an accident that happens and the person having the event has no insurance, you can just about guarantee that the claim will be made against somebody who does have insurance," Turnage said.
Gavin sided with Box, citing a possible increase in future premiums.
"Even though the city would be covered under our current policy and so forth, if an accident should happen and we have to file on that insurance, we have to look at very seriously what happens to our rates the following year," Gavin said.
Former Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board member and current Island committee member David Sanders reiterated that the waivers did not remove the council's control over the bridge.
"(Event planners) still have to fill out an application for a permit. It's just the financial side of it that's discouraging. It's $750 for $1 million insurance. It's $400 for a fee for a certain amount of hours and there's a deposit on top of that. It all adds up to more than $1,000," Sanders said. "The consultants that came in and spoke with us basically said, 'We need to get that bridge exposed.' When somebody calls up and says, 'I just want to get married down there,' ... the story that was told to us was that the person just went and got married there anyway."
Mayor Robert Smith then asked city property manager Frank Goodman if insurance was required to reserve an event at the Trotter Convention Center or the Riverwalk. Goodman said it was not and people renting those spaces sign contracts assuming responsibility for accidents.
Councilman Marty Turner noted that the bridge presented a different scenario than the Riverwalk and Trotter.
"It's not as dangerous," Turner said. "What if somebody gets pushed off in the river and can't swim? If you can't swim, you might die. You can't get pushed in the Trotter and drown."
Irby steered the conversation back to the bridge policy approved last year.
"I think the policy right now is if I wanted a birthday party, I could go out there and I can have it with whoever I want to invite," Irby said. "If anybody wants to walk across the bridge, I can't prevent them from walking but I can still have the party. What this does is give a little more control of major events."
After more discussion, the council voted unanimously to approve the temporary moratorium.
In other business, the council:
■ Reappointed Kevin Stafford to the board of adjustment and appeals of development codes;
■ Authorized a request from Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong to apply for a 2014 Urban Youth Corp Program grant. This includes a $10,000 match to a potential $35,000 if the application is accepted;
■ Approved a request to hire three laborers in the public works department.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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