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The City of Columbia, South Carolina's Plans to Publicly Finance a Hilton Convention Center
Hotel Receiving Community Backlash;
Intends to Use $69.9 million in Revenue-backed Bonds
By John C. Drake, The State, Columbia, S.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Mar. 5, 2004 - City residents are calling and writing Columbia City Council in what one member said are unprecedented numbers to weigh in on the city's plans to publicly finance a convention center hotel. 

Since the city decided to finance the hotel more than a year ago, longtime city critics have assailed the plan, comparing it to the failed city-backed airline venture of the 1990s. 

But more recently, new voices have joined the chorus of dissent. A newly formed group has taken out an ad in The State, and says it plans more. 

Its members want a public hearing on the plan, something Mayor Bob Coble says he will consider. 

Leigh Talmadge, a downtown business owner, said this is the first time he has been actively involved in protesting a city initiative. 

He helped pay for the ad. 

"They have a hard enough time running the city," he said. "I don't see why they need to build a hotel when there are people with money in their pockets wanting to do it themselves." 

Councilwoman Anne Sinclair, the lone council member to vote against the deal, said she has received 50 e-mails since last week, and about 30 phone calls this week about the hotel, numbers she said were unprecedented for a single issue. 

Of those, just one e-mail was in favor of the city's using $69.9 million in revenue-backed bonds to finance a Hilton hotel to serve the new Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, she said. The city rejected two separate plans by private developers. 

"My sense is that people are pretty upset, particularly when there is an alternative," she said. 

But council members who voted for the deal tell a different story. 

They acknowledge they have received a large number of phone calls and e-mails since the ad ran, but say the opinions have been more balanced. Julie Ruff, a Coble aide, said the mayor's office has received more than 100 calls regarding the hotel since Monday morning, with about 70 in favor of the hotel deal and about 45 against. 

The protest group, which calls itself the Columbia Citizens Coalition, received donations of $100 each from about two dozen people for the ad, which encouraged others to contact council members. 

Rusty B. DePass Jr., who is handling the group's donations, said they are still receiving money and plan to buy more ads. 

"I have been listening to people for over a month now talking about how upset they are," said Candy Waites, a former Richland County Council member who led the effort. "Every time I would turn to someone and say, 'Have you communicated to your elected officials?' their eyes would sort of glaze over." 

The advertisement also encouraged residents to fill out a form explaining why they were against the hotel deal and to mail it to the mayor's office. Ruff said 130 of the fliers had been received Wednesday and Thursday. 

Calhoun McMeekin, a residential real estate agent, said he is not "one of those rabble-rousers" who commonly criticize the city, but seeing a similar public hotel in Myrtle Beach run into financial trouble made him worry about the amount of risk Columbia was taking on. 

"I just think that the city overextends itself into areas where they just don't have the kind of expertise that the private individuals do," he said. 

Councilman Sam Davis, who supports the hotel deal, said many of the residents who have contacted him don't have enough information. 

He said the Columbia Citizens Coalition is not explaining to people that even with a private hotel, the city likely would subsidize parking and provide the land. 

"In either case, you're talking about government subsidy," he said. 

In February, City Council, acting as the nonprofit Columbia Convention Center Hotel Corp., voted 4-1 to proceed with the deal. 

Jim Papadea and Hamilton Osborne have recused themselves from voting on the hotel, because the companies they work for are involved, but both have expressed reservations about the public option. 

Coble, Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine and E.W. Cromartie voted to move forward on the deal. Sinclair voted against. 

The citizens' group has requested that council hold a public hearing on the matter. Coble said he would consider a public hearing, but would not say when it might be. He said he would present the idea to the council. 

-----To see more of The State, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2004, The State, Columbia, S.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. 


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