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May 7, 2014 9:58:57 AM
After holding a public hearing and informational session Tuesday, Columbus councilmen established an urban renewal area and will soon advertise for applicants for a five-member redevelopment authority.
The area includes city-owned property on The Island as well as parcels on Fifth Street North extending to Highway 45 North, a section of downtown and a portion of Seventh Avenue North, a portion along Main Street beginning at 12th Street and ending just beyond the railroad tracks and the Warehouse District located in the Southside Historic District.
Finding the area to have blighted parcels and approving the area was a pre-requisite mandated by state code to establishing an authority that could help rehabilitate parcels that generate more tax revenue for or improve quality of life there. Once established, the authority would, once it is capitalized, have the ability to purchase or sell property for the purpose of development, develop property on its own or clear parcels in too much disrepair to redevelop. After fielding applications from those interested in being on the authority, Mayor Robert Smith can get feedback from the council and appoint the members. City director of planning and community development Christina Berry said the method for funding the plan would be determined at a later date by the council.
"If there is a developer that's interested in property that's within this area, we can work with them to help their development come to fruition, whether that be going after a bond and working on a deal structure to how that bond is paid back," Berry said.
One thing the authority will not have, Berry said, is the power of eminent domain, meaning it cannot take private property in the urban renewal area for public use. It can help a developer purchase property or buy property itself if the current landowner agrees to sell it.
Berry told those in attendance just because a parcel is in the area doesn't mean the authority is planning to acquire the land or add zoning restrictions to any property.
One of the initial projects the authority will take on will be redeveloping the city-owned portion of The Island on the side of the Old Tombigbee River Bridge opposite downtown, which Berry said would be a good first step. The seven-acre parcel is a small part of The Island that the council approved to be in the urban renewal area, which includes privately held land as well as property used for industry. A committee established to foster redevelopment on The Island has recommended building a park on the land the city owns and using that to attract potential developers.
Columbus resident Brenda Carradine questioned how much cohesion there can be between a public park and industrial land with little separation between the two.
"If you go over there on The Island and you develop a beautiful park, but you have a scrap metal place and shoddy motels, I don't understand how that's going to work unless you do purchase the land," Carradine said.
Berry said a developer working in tandem with the authority to purchase land already being used currently should address that issue.
"We do have other uses over there, but from an authority and a city standpoint, we wouldn't want to make a move investing in something that we don't have a private arm to carry out," Berry said. "If you have a private partner to assist you with that, there's a way you can work it out in the deal structure where it can be paid for on the back end, whether ... the authority is receiving income from the development and it's paid back that way or some type of TIF (tax increment financing) is done. It's based on what a private developer feels like taking a risk on. I'm only one entity that is talking about the tools that could be used."
Matthew Wade owns property abutting city land on The Island and said he's in favor of meaningful development and sees the establishment of an authority as a positive step, but he still questioned whether the authority has a back-up plan if there's a lack of private investment interest. The fact that the authority cannot invoke eminent domain relieved him as a property owner in the renewal area, however, and he feels other landowners on The Island share his sentiment that they want to hold on to the land they have.
"The mystique of that parcel of land that I bought was that it was secluded in the city. It is no more," Wade said. "I'm not OK with that, but I have to be. There's private land separate from the industrial that could be developed as well depending on how much land can be acquired. The two can co-exist, but I think it's going to be difficult to acquire any of that land.
"Investors are not pouring into Columbus, so we'll just have to see," Wade added.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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