July 26, 2014 10:48:43 PM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Mayor Robert Smith is in the process of appointing five members of what will be Columbus' redevelopment authority and hopes to have the group ready for councilmen to review sometime in the next two months.
State statute gives the mayor the authority to appoint the members of the new board, which would work to provide incentives to developers to restore blighted parcels into tax-generating properties.
The authority will oversee the urban renewal district established by the council in May, which consists of 830 blighted parcels covering 1,296 acres in four main areas of the city, including an area along Highway 45 and several areas near downtown.
Smith said his goal is to assemble a diverse group of business-minded people who are willing to invest time and energy into the project. He said he has talked with several business people, three of whom have agreed to serve. He declined to reveal names until he has secured the other two members and brought their names to the council.
"What this committee can bring to the table are ideas, suggestions and recommendations," Smith said.
Under state statute, the authority would have the flexibility to offer incentives to developers that they would otherwise not be offered to a developer seeking to rehabilitate a property on his own. The redevelopment authority would be able to acquire and sell property, rehabilitate and improve structures, pursue public-private partnerships, demolish buildings that can't be rehabilitated, consolidate titles and acquire and distribute funds.
Smith said one example of someone who has successfully done what the authority is designed to foster is Mark Castleberry, a local developer who has worked to establish multiple hotels and commercial properties in the city.
"He's an outsider who has come into Columbus, saw what he liked, and invested his money along with bringing in some other people," Smith said. "I'm hoping that's what this committee will do...and these guys can probably get people to buy in that we couldn't get to by in from a financial standpoint."
City planner Christina Berry said her department and the city council could apply for grants for funding for the authority and is also hopeful the city will commit funds in future budgets to assist in providing seed money.
"You can use your land as an asset," Berry said. "It really just depends on whatever deal that someone brings before that authority that it could work with them on. We're also looking at capitalizing on land the city may own and possibly even disposing of some of the land for revenue or using it as part of a project
"We're also seeing what other land could be donated to us to use that could be of interest for a project that we're looking at. Right now, I'm hoping the council will support putting some funds in the budget for at least administrative uses."
Former city planner and administrative assistant George Irby said the authority's success would be more likely with outside contributions. For example, the city of Tupelo issued $22 million in bonds 15 years ago without a tax increase and also had private investment matching funds. The product is the city's 50-acre Fairpark District.
"You can compare towns and tax base, but you can't compare participation," Irby said. "Money does not take care of everything, but it helps."
No talk of a bond issue as a revenue source for Columbus' redevelopment authority has been discussed publicly.
Castleberry, who attended preliminary meetings last year where discussion of creating the urban renewal district was held, affirmed Berry's statement that publicly-owned property can be converted into capital for the group's use. He said he's been contacted about serving and would do so if the council approves him as a member.
"There is a potential of land that's already owned by a public entity," Castleberry said. "There's a resource there, and value can be created from that. I don't think (the authority would be) overseeing a budget. I think its more of a situation where it would be overseeing processes and direction. We may be asking for funding from other entities to carry out a process."
Keeping the vision
Debbie Brangenburg, who has worked with the five-member Tupelo Redevelopment Agency since its inception in 1999, said having a master plan in place and keeping politics out of business decisions is key to realizing the vision of a redevelopment group.
"Part of my job was to be the keeper of the vision and to steer politics away from changing the vision with the newest, hottest dollar deal that was on the table," Brangenburg said. "We could have had something nice that came up but if it didn't fit the master plan, we had to stay true to the vision of what we saw. The thing that has been a success for us in Tupelo with our redevelopment agency is we had a very clear vision of where we want to go. That's not to say that the master plan and land use plan is not still fluid and flexible based on today's circumstances because it has evolved over a 20-year period."
As a developer, Castleberry said he believes any tool that can provide people incentives to invest that are otherwise not available is helpful.
"Anytime you have a resource that can bring a new incentive or ability to acquire land, it's a positive thing," Castleberry said. "The real issue is how it's administrated. It's good conceptually and it's a good program, but the wisdom of the administration of it will decide whether it is good for Columbus."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.