COLUMBIA — As the city goes back to the drawing board on one public financing program, plans to institute another are under way.
The Columbia City Council voted unanimously Monday to rescind a resolution that created an advisory board for the enhanced enterprise zone program, a tool designed to attract manufacturing jobs to Columbia. The council likely will vote on an ordinance establishing a new board charged with targeting areas for the program within the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, city staff are prepping a proposal for increased use of tax-increment financing to address infrastructure issues in the central city.
What the heck is tax-increment financing? This short animated video will explain it.
Tax-increment financing, commonly referred to as TIF, is a method cities across Missouri and the nation use to spur redevelopment. In February, the council and City Manager Mike Matthes began talking about whether to place the entire First Ward into a TIF district to address stormwater, vacant housing, poor sidewalks and other problems that First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt said “have been festering for years.”
Brent Gardner, a member of the city's Downtown Leadership Council, attended a recent meeting with city officials at which Matthes explained how the process works. The group, which Gardner said included Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine, Public Works Director John Glascock and Economic Development Director Mike Brooks, also discussed which sections of town could benefit from TIF. Gardner said the city is in the preliminary stages of creating a map, and many options for boundaries are still in play.
"Nothing was discussed about keeping it in one ward," Gardner said.
St. Romaine said the city invited representatives Gardner and Randy Gray from the Leadership Council to what he called an internal staff meeting. Attendees discussed whether to establish a TIF district and areas where infrastructure is lacking. He said that the city is looking specifically at parts of the central city and that creating multiple smaller districts, rather than one large district, is a possibility.
Creating one or more TIF districts would be a change from the current practice in Columbia. Two TIF projects are under way downtown: the renovation of The Tiger Hotel and the construction of a new DoubleTree hotel at the former site of the Regency on Broadway. Those projects target specific areas, while TIF districts are designed with larger boundaries to enable more widespread development projects.
Gardner called tax-increment financing "a different animal" than an enhanced enterprise zone, saying TIF districts can ensure targeted infrastructure improvements that include potentially addressing stormwater runoff that pollutes Hinkson Creek.
During public comment of the enhanced enterprise zone proposal Monday night, several members of the public spoke about the consequences of deeming parts of Columbia “blighted.” A requirement of a TIF redevelopment plan — similar to the enhanced enterprise zone proposal — is to designate an area as blighted or in need of conservation to avoid eventual decay.
Opponents worried the designation could open the door for the city to exercise eminent domain. The city can choose to condemn the property and move forward with its own redevelopment plans once it exercises that power.
Mark Flakne of Keep Columbia Free urged the council during public comment on the enhanced enterprise zone not to ignore the ramifications of blight designations.
“It’s very important to me — and many people — that we do not gloss over the issue of blight and how that relates to eminent domain abuse in Missouri,” Flakne said. He said that, in recent years, eminent domain has been used in Missouri “to take land and property especially from the least among us and minority populations.”
Gardner said one main difference between TIF districts and an enhanced enterprise zone is a limitation on what is considered blighted.
"An EEZ blights everything within its boundaries," Gardner said. "A TIF map does not."
A conservation TIF district, which is Schmidt's stated preference for the First Ward, requires that a majority of its buildings be 35 years or older and that conditions within the boundaries might eventually lead to blight.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony urged the city at the close of Monday’s meeting to involve the public in the process of creating TIF districts. Anthony acknowledged that there were no imminent plans to create a district but said it would be “an excellent time for us to schedule a meeting with the public,” possibly as early as June.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe asked that members of affected neighborhoods be notified of public meetings discussing TIF districts. State law requires an ordinance to create a TIF district, which requires a public hearing.
St. Romaine said the city plans to include the community in the process.
“We look forward to a much broader discussion with the public,” St. Romaine said.
Gardner said that city officials will meet again next week to discuss potential areas for the use of TIF.
"My guess is that we'll probably come up with a map that is kind of fluid," Gardner said.
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