Developers must wait for Columbia infrastructure improvements before building downtown

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 | 10:41 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The list of developers eager to build in downtown Columbia continues to grow despite infrastructure problems.

Two new developers expressed interest in building this week, bringing the number of proposed building projects in the downtown area to seven. 

The two new projects include a high-density residential development planned for the corner of Tenth Street and Broadway and commercial buildings that would be built next to Lucky's Market on Providence Road. 

But the surge of interest in the city's downtown comes as city officials continue to search for a way to pay for an estimated $19.75 million in water, electric, sewer and stormwater infrastructure improvements needed to meet the demand of the new developments. 

On Tuesday, city officials decided that no new buildings that would add to the already strained utilities will go up in the downtown area. While the developers can submit plans to the city, they won't be able to break ground until the utility problems are solved. The moratorium would not affect any building projects that were already underway, Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said.

Previously, City Manager Mike Matthes had informed potential developers that the city didn't have electric or sewer capacity to allow them to build.

In response to mounting pressure by developers, city officials have sought approval for a tax increment financing district that would fund the downtown's infrastructure improvements. 

On Tuesday evening, members of the city's Tax Increment Financing Commission met to learn more about the proposed taxing district. 

Tax increment financing districts allow local governments to freeze property and sales taxes within segments of a city. Government officials can then reallocate any additional taxes, gained from property improvements or growth in sales, to a fund for infrastructure or other projects. Tax increment financing districts can last for as long as 23 years. 

During the commission meeting, St. Romaine presented a list of projects that the proposed taxing district could fund. The list included the nearly $20 million for infrastructure that city officials said is needed immediately, and another $50.4 million that could bankroll future projects in the proposed district. 

But the specifics of how the tax financing plan would operate have yet to be released. City officials are waiting on Development Stategies, a private consultant firm from St. Louis, to complete a cost-benefit analysis and redevelopment plan. 

St. Romaine said the plan should be available within the next week. 

City officials have repeatedly said that the downtown taxing district is the only way to fund infrastructure projects without raising taxes or utility rates. They have warned that without the proposed tax increment financing plan, infrastructure projects won't be built fast enough to satisfy developers. 

During Tuesday's meeting, commission members questioned whether the proposed financing plan was the only solution and whether all of the future projects were necessary.

But without the cost-benefit analysis, some commissioners and members of the public left the meeting with more questions than answers. 

Christine King, who represents Columbia Public Schools on the commission, said she understood the need to fund infrastructure downtown but wanted to make sure that a tax increment financing district was the best way to do that. 

King said she wouldn't make a decision about the plan until she had all of the information. 

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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