Columbia biz buzz attracts a crowd

Monday’s meeting of  the Columbia City Council was all business as residents and business owners packed the City Hall council chambers to learn more about plans to implement a business district in the northern part of town.

A public hearing on the proposed district lasted over an hour and covered a variety of topics from eminent domain to environmental concerns.

The hearing began with John Brancaglione of PGAV Planners, the company which prepared and presented a report of the particulars of the proposed plan during a December meeting.

On Monday, Brancaglione gave a general overview of what a business district entails.

“A business district is really intended to support both the need for infrastructure on the part of the municipality or any supporting entity… that is the result of development, and at the same time to assist a developer with the resources to cover extraordinary costs, including the cost of infrastructure,” Brancaglione began.

“One of the things that has been slowing development now, even beginning pre-COVID is the cost of construction,” he continued, explaining that developers are often responsible for contributing extra money to bring in needed infrastructure such as turn lanes or sewer lines.

As previously reported, Brancaglione pointed out many setbacks to development in Columbia’s proposed business district area, particularly along Palmer Road and its interchange along Route 3.

The business district would run along Route 3 north from Sand Bank Road to I-255 near the Monroe County line. The area also includes areas along Old Route 3 and Palmer Road. 

To help ease the cost of development for both a municipality and investors, Brancaglione said additional taxes collected from a business district – which may only be used within district boundaries – have been used as a way to remove obstacles to development.

He also stressed that a business district is different from a tax increment finance district in that it only collects additional taxes from the district itself without affecting tax rates or other revenue streams from the municipality as a whole. 

Brancaglione added “a business district does not obligate the city to make any advance commitment to build something, whether it’s of its own nature as a public improvement or committing any revenues to a developer to execute their project, except and unless, where a development is concerned, there’s a written agreement that’s approved by ordinance,” but even then the money amounts “are not pre-dedicated. There is no advance financing on the city’s part. That revenue is only used to the extent that the project generates the revenue.” 

He then gave examples of how business districts have been used successfully in other nearby cities such as O’Fallon, Shiloh and Collinsville.

 Once Brancaglione had finished, members of the public in attendance posed questions and shared concerns with the council.

The first to speak was Melissa Gregoire, who resides near Bridgeview Drive on a parcel which would be included in the business district if approved.

An emotional Gregoire was concerned she and her family would be forced to move if the plan were adopted. She pointed to the project proposal included in the agenda packet which included language from state statutes which would allow eminent domain to be used in a business district. 

Her concern was assuaged somewhat when she was assured eminent domain would not be enacted and that the business district did not represent a change in the city’s existing land use policy.

Ward II Alderman Lauren Nobbe said the city’s “intention is not to chase residents away. You guys are what makes our community.”

City attorney Terry Bruckert explained the state allows use of eminent domain, but the city will not exercise that power.

Columbia Mayor Bob Hill added that as part of the process of creating the business district process, the city can prohibit use of eminent domain as part of the ordinances as they are passed.

“There’s going to be things in place to prevent those things (such as eminent domain),” Hill said.

Andrew Allen, also of Bridgeview Drive, asked the purpose of including residential parcels if they are not being considered for development.

In addition to needing to create a “contiguous” district, Brancaglione said residential properties “adjacent to principle roadways” were included in the event they became “commercially desirable.”

He continued by saying it would benefit property owners by increasing the property value while leaving a decision to sell in the hands of the owners.

“It’s not about the taking, it’s about trying to give  those people with fronting property that much more value if, in fact, they ultimately want to sell. If they don’t want to sell, there’s nothing in the plan that will force them,” Brancaglione concluded.

Allen countered by saying many residents of the area were concerned commercial development in the area may actually cause the residential properties to lose value.

David Walser spoke on behalf of the Prairie du Pont Levee District.

Walser pointed out several basins are already overloaded due to development, adding that the quantity of water which needs to be pumped currently can at times cost the district thousands of dollars per hour.

Walser argued that adding more “impervious surface” would cause further costs and possibly bankrupt his levee district.

He continued by saying development in the north end of Columbia is “not a good thing for the people who pay that bill. And unfortunately, everybody east of Route 3 doesn’t pay any of the bill. Everybody west of Route 3, they do pay levee district taxes, and it’s usually not enough to cover the cost.”

Erica Schramm Stitzel was concerned with ecological impact.

“I’m concerned that these developments… are making forever ecological decisions that won’t be undone,” she began. “Is that even taken into consideration?”

Columbia City Administrator Doug Brimm said certain ecological studies are required if state or federal funds are being used, but he was unaware of any prohibitions for private entities.

Ward IV Alderman Mary Ellen Niemietz described considerations the city takes into account when handling development proposals in order to reduce environmental impacts. She also pointed to the parks and other green spaces the city has made a priority in its planning.

Niemietz also explained that organizations such as HeartLands Conservancy work with property owners to establish environmental easements in perpetuity, but pointed out it is up to the owner.

“That’s not something the city can control,” Niemietz concluded.

Lisa Braun, owner of R&M Oil at 603 Old Route 3, which would fall in the business district, was concerned an additional tax would drive business away to nearby providers which would be able to offer lower prices.

“Who wants to pay more for their gas?” Braun asked.

Tim Wheeler, owner of Top Shooters Sports Bar at 531 Old Route 3, also a business which would be in the district, had questions on how money generated from this new district would be used.

He began by thanking city officials for meeting with him and other business owners to discuss particulars, but did express concern that the city’s intentions to develop business could shift and the city may choose to allocate funds to benefit itself. 

Wheeler began by asking for clarification of the city’s goals for the district within the 23-year window allowed under business district legislation. 

“I think your plans coming out of the gate look good, but it’s about the safeguards for our community. Not just the community, but for the business district,” Wheeler said, who also asked why certain businesses were excluded and why other parcels were   included.

Properties in the flood plain were excluded, Brimm explained, adding the plan includes properties which have a higher likelihood of being developed. 

Brimm said the I-255 interchange project near Dupo at Imbs Station Road is expected to increase development interest in the area as a reason for including residential properties in the district.

Several comments at the hearing – including those made by Melvin Stuckmeyer and Chris Holston – stated a desire to keep Columbia the way it is.

“I don’t know if I’m for this or against it,” Holston said. “I live in Columbia for good schools, peace and quiet, you know, a great place to raise a family. That’s why we’re all here, right? I just want to make sure it stays that way.”

There will be further discussion about the business district proposal, with a vote on the matter not expected until a March council meeting at the earliest.

Brimm pointed out that if any significant changes were to be made to the district plan or map, the city would be required to hold another public hearing on the matter.

After Monday’s hearing, most of the rest of the meeting was a discussion of how to proceed with the city-funded facade grant program and the amount of involvement the Historic Main Street Columbia Association will have moving forward.

It was determined the topic was in need of further   discussion before any council action would be taken.

(Editor’s note: The Republic-Times incorrectly reported last week that a vote on the proposed business district would take place at the Feb. 5 meeting. We regret the error.)

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