News19 Talks with Bull St. Developer Bob Hughes

12:28 AM, Jul 18, 2013   |    comments
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Greenville developer Bob Hughes.

Greenville, SC (WLTX) -- Developer Bob Hughes is finally speaking out after weeks of debate and votes by the Columbia City Council on the Bull Street property. 

Hughes' firm, which is based out of Greenville, was selected to develop the property, which used to house the Department of Mental Health Campus. The sprawling 181-acre site is expected to be changed into a combination of business and residential structures, a grand vision that city leaders say will transform the city's downtown.

Two votes, one July 1 and the second a week later, July 9, allowed a development agreement between Hughes' firm and the City of Columbia to move forward.

"What's in it for me is sort of what's in it for the people of Columbia," said Hughes in his first interview since the talks began to edge toward their climax months ago.

There were months of contention before the votes, and Hughes said four years of talks with members of the Columbia community and preservationists alike led up to the deal.

"We made a decision in the company years ago that we only wanted to do things that would transform an area, that made a difference, and this project fits both of those," Hughes said.

During the interview, Hughes opened up about everything Bull Street, and tried to ease concerns by some citizens of Columbia about his intentions with the site.

Much of the controversy has centered around the bill taxpayers are expected to pay as part of the agreement, an expected $70 million over 20-years and four phases. But city leaders say that payout will be offset by the development.

"We're starting to hear from companies who are saying we've been waiting until you were officially released to go," Hughes said. "Now that the uncertainty has been removed, we're starting to get some really first quality people saying they've got an interest in Bull Street."

Hughes said his plans include what he believes will lead to an immediate impact of the growth and development of the downtown Columbia area, and said he ultimately hopes that impact reaches the city at large.

Advocates for the plans cite an estimated economic impact of about $1 billion each year over the life of the project. That includes over 11,000 jobs, according to an economic study done by Harry Miley, chief executive of Miley & Associates.

Hughes said because of these numbers, taxpayers will see a return on their investment.

Some opponents think there hasn't been enough consideration made for protecting the historical significance of the buildings on the property. But Hughes said he worked closely with preservationists to come to conclusions about those buildings.

"I think they did a good job expressing what they needed," Hughes said, "and I think we've done a good job responding. I mean we've got tree preservation stuff, we're saving 74 percent of the square feet of all the historic buildings that anyone ever mentioned. We're giving ourselves an opportunity to save the other 26 percent."

And as for issues raised about taxpayer protections during the life of the agreement, Hughes said he believes the contract language provides built in protections for taxpayers.

"The great thing about the way this system works is if I fail to create a project that rewards people and they don't want to live there, I don't get paid for my efforts," Hughes said.

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