Village at River's Edge project continues to raise eyebrows
Political commentary by Todd Morehead
Mayoral candidate, Steve Benjamin's, political albatross is squawking again, though he technically unhooked it from around his neck last year. His connection to the Village at River's Edge, currently a 24-acre tract of undeveloped land off River Drive, has continued to pester the candidate, despite the fact that he sold his share in the development company prior to announcing his candidacy.
The latest in political chatter is still firmly rooted in that piece of land, but it now throws Benjamin's in-laws and former city manager, Charles Austin, into the mix.
Here's how it looks on paper. Back in 1997, then police chief, Charles Austin, was an associate pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church. He and the church reportedly worked to open the Village of Hope church and family center across the street from Roosevelt Village, a low-income neighborhood known for high crime. Austin began serving as pastor at Village of Hope church in 1997 and still serves as pastor today, according to the church Web site.
In 2005, the City of Columbia wanted to beautify and renovate pockets of low-income housing and high crime areas as part of the North Main Master Plan. The Roosevelt Village apartments, on what is now the Village at Rivers Edge site, was one of the areas in question. According to a media report, Roosevelt Village residents formed the Village of Hope Community Development Corporation, secured funding through Richland County and a private bank loan, and bought the property from Roosevelt Village property owner, McQueen Smith, in 2003. Richland County lists the sale at $900,000.
It is important to note that the Village of Hope Community Development Corp. and the Village of Hope Fellowship, where Austin is pastor, are two separate entities, according to the S.C. Secretary of State.
Three years later, the Village at River's Edge, LLC bought the site for over $1.3 million, which netted a $453,000 profit for Village of Hope CDC. The Village of Hope CDC web site lists Austin as a source of inspiration, but City Paper has so far not been able to confirm if he actually served on the board or in any official capacity for the development corporation. So far, he was only an inspirational preacher across the street.
At a 2006 city council meeting, city officials gave Austin, then city manager, the task of securing $1.8 million in public funds to subsidize the infrastructure for the Village at River's Edge. At that meeting city council also required that 50 percent of dwellings be designated for residents at 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) and 50 percent were for folks at 80 to 120 percent the AMI, as part of the city affordable housing initiative.
According to a report by the Columbia Community Development Corp. the city planned to commit $1.6 million in Economic Development Initiative (EDI) funds to the Village at Riverâ€™s Edge to help pay for the design and construction of its utility infrastructure. In September 2009, the city issued Resolution R-2009-075, which officially committed that $1.6 million to its overall funding obligation.
The Columbia Housing Authority (CHA) oversees the majority of the development of affordable housing in Columbia. According to Recovery.gov, a federal government web site dedicated to Recovery Act spending, the CHA secured a $10,000,000 grant from the Federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in September, 2009 to help with the affordable housing component for the Village at Riverâ€™s Edge. Bobby Gist is on the board of the CHA. Bobby Gistâ€™s brother, Donald, is Steve Benjaminâ€™s father-in-law.
According to the Secretary of Stateâ€™s office, Benjamin wasnâ€™t removed as the registered agent for Village at Riverâ€™s Edge until Nov. 11, 2009, around two months after the grant was awarded.
So, thatâ€™s whatâ€™s on paper. Doubtless, Benjaminâ€™s detractors will seize upon data like that, while his allies will wave it away. We leave it up to you to decide.