When Columbia County made its first large-scale foray into industrial land development seven years ago, the method was strictly a government operation. Floating $7.5 million in bonds and kicking in $4.23 million in sales tax funds, the countys Development Authority bought and prepared a huge tract of land surrounding the new John Deere plant.
In one respect, the creation of Horizon South Industrial Park was a resounding success; it attracted not just John Deeres recent expansion, but several other new industrial facilities to Columbia County.
But it is a spectacular boondoggle for taxpayers. After selling (or, in one case, giving away) all but a tiny piece of Horizon South, the Develop-ment Authority still owes $5.44 million - in addition to nearly $2 million it borrowed to build a still-unsold speculative building at the park.
The conundrum for county officials is that the Development Authority cant meet its mission of expanding the countys industrial and commercial tax base without available land. But the Horizon South experience demonstrates that simply purchasing and selling land is ultimately a losing proposition.
Taxpayers, then, should applaud the groundbreaking for Horizon North Business Center, a new industrial park a stones throw from Horizon South - but light-years away in vision.
Instead of taxpayers holding the bag for Horizon North, private developers from Blanchard & Calhoun Commercial Corp. are risking their own investment dollars in purchasing and preparing the 260-acre park. Columbia County is using $1 million in sales tax funds to build a connector road from Chamblin Road to Lewiston Road. The money was earmarked for industrial development in the 2000 sales tax referendum, and the road will be a valuable link from Chamblin to Interstate 20.
This is a new business model for economic development, says Devel-opment Authority Chair-man Ron Thigpen. This public-private partnership combines the ability of private industry to do what it does best, and the ability of government to do what it does best.
Thigpen and other county officials put in some hard bargaining with the private investors. Not only is Blanchard & Calhoun spending its own money to prepare seven parcels on 100 acres of the new park - grading them to pad-ready status rather than leaving them wooded - but the company also has agreed to pay the county $2,500 per acre of land sold. That deal has the potential of paying back half of the countys investment for the new road, though its more likely the money will help pay off the authoritys old debt.
Taxpayers should be thrilled, especially if Horizon North brings jobs and a broader tax base. And county officials should be hailed for literally paving the way for new industry without raiding taxpayers pockets.
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