COLUMBIA — A proposal to create an enhanced enterprise zone in Columbia has sparked debate and discussion about the potential move, which is intended to promote job creation and economic development, harming property values in areas designated as blighted and leading to the city's use of eminent domain.
In February the Columbia City Council approved boundaries for an enhanced enterprise zone and appointed a board to oversee it.
The board of directors would have seven members — five appointed by the mayor, one appointed by the Columbia Public School District and another appointed by other taxed entities in the proposed zone.
The city must still apply to the Missouri Department of Economic Development before the zone becomes official. preliminary plans to declare up to 60 percent of Columbia as “blighted,” however, raised serious concern among members of the community about lower property values and likely use of eminent domain.
As work to address the public's questions continues and with the municipal election occurring Tuesday, the Missourian asked candidates in the Second and Sixth wards to share their thoughts on the use of enhanced enterprise zone tax incentives and where the process should go from here.
Second Ward candidate Mike Atkinson
Atkinson said that while he believes the net effect of an enhanced enterprise zone is negligible, he was leaning toward not supporting the proposal because of the public backlash over the use of the term "blight."
Atkinson said that before he supports it, he would like to see a study that examines the effects of designating an area as blighted on residential property values.
"It looked like it was not something Columbia needed," Atkinson said. "They got IBM without an enterprise zone."
Second Ward candidate Bill Pauls
Pauls said establishing an enhanced enterprise zone in Columbia is just one of many tools available to foster economic development. He said the process should move at a pace that allows deliberative input from all interested parties, including the public.
Pauls said he has visited some of the public meetings held in response to the zone proposal and is impressed by the level of informed discussion.
“There were a lot of people using what I would like to use, which is more common sense,” Pauls said.
Pauls said the politically charged issue inspired the use of unnecessary rhetoric that was not present at the public forum.
According to recommendations REDI submitted to the City Council in January, 115 Missouri communities have established enhanced enterprise zones. These include Kansas City and St. Louis, as well as smaller cities such as Belton and Jefferson City.
Pauls said in a video interview with the Missourian the zones are necessary to give Columbia a competitive advantage.
“I think we need to do absolutely everything we possibly can to gain an economic advantage,” Pauls said in that interview.
Pauls said Columbia already has several economic advantages, including its location. This may make the use of tax incentives and abatements less necessary if the city addresses concerns about resources for larger industries, including the visibility and options available at Columbia Regional Airport, Pauls said.
“Our very location puts us in a real positive light,” Pauls said. “That’s why the airport is important. We have the I-70 corridor, but an air corridor would be great, too.”
Second Ward candidate Michael Trapp
Trapp said he would be unable to support the enhanced enterprise zone plan in its current form because it contains language which would exempt businesses from local regulations.
"I'd like to see that part removed," Trapp said. "But I would like to improve the plan versus scrap it."
Trapp said that after reading the appraisal report, he thinks the zone is unlikely to harm property values. Trapp said he doesn't believe the enterprise zone has anything to do with eminent domain.
"There are strong reasons to support it," Trapp said. "We lost 2,000 factory jobs from 2000 to 2009."
Sixth Ward candidate Barbara Hoppe
The incumbent councilwoman said she wasn’t satisfied with the amount of time the council had to deliberate the proposal to establish the tax abatement before the ordinance establishing boundaries for the zone came to a vote.
The initial presentation was made during the Jan. 17 council meeting by Dave Griggs, chairman of Regional Economic Development Inc., and Bob Black, chairman of the subcommittee charged with investigating city zone usage.
Three weeks later the council voted unanimously to establish an Enhanced Enterprise Zone Board.
Hoppe said the quick turnaround wasn’t long enough to address specific questions about the boundaries of the zones and the use of the blight designation/definition to establish them.
“I had a lot of questions, so I was emailing and on the phone … asking questions and trying to get answers,” Hoppe said. “At that point, I was thinking of tabling it.”
Hoppe said the responses to those questions seemed to provide enough information to move forward with the project but subsequent discussion showed the council needed more background information.
“At that time, we didn’t know what we didn't have, but immediately thereafter, as I learned more information and talked with more people, I realized not only that we didn’t have all the information and questions answered, the public didn’t have all their questions answered,” Hoppe said.
Hoppe then called for public information sessions to make sure officials and the public were on the same page, and she asked the board to produce materials that would answer specific questions about zone boundaries, which she said were initially proposed too broadly.
“I think there’s a potential to use it in a very restricted way,” Hoppe said.
Sixth Ward candidate Bill Tillotson
Tillotson said he would have voted to establish the Enhanced Enterprise Zone Board had he been on the council last month. But he said the language could be re-written to address specific concerns raised by Columbia residents.
"I could see how anybody would be upset about the terminology," Tillotson said, referring to the use of the word "blight" in the plans. "But Columbia didn't write it, the state did."
Tillotson said residents could be appeased if the city made the zone smaller while retaining connectivity.
In regards to concern about possible use of eminent domain, Tillotson said it was a non-issue. He criticized people who advocate the use of eminent domain to allow the construction of trails and parks but criticize it in this context.
Missourian reporter Jacob Kirn contributed to this article.