Bill would create independent authority to manage downtown Columbia

Legislation to create an authority to manage affordable housing, transportation, security, maintenance and other services for downtown Columbia has been prefiled with the County Council.

The bill, sponsored by the county administration, would establish the Downtown Columbia Partnership and its seven-member Board of Directors "to provide a number of focused services to the community," the county's director of downtown redevelopment Mark Thompson said.

The partnership is defined as a public instrumentality of the county.

"It functions as an organization that's looking at the entirety of downtown," Thompson said.

The council will officially introduce the bill June 4, a public hearing on it will be held June 18 and a vote is scheduled for July 2. All meetings will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the George Howard Building.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat who represents the downtown area, said the downtown Columbia plan the council passed in 2010 outlines the need for the partnership.

"It's a mechanism for doing all the things that are described in the plan, such as marketing the area, making sure that the area is well maintained, coordinating efforts between property owners for programming, just for making sure that we have all those amenities in place," she said.

Council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, said "one of the most important aspects of this legislation is it allows the revenue collection authority to move these initiatives forward."

As the main community developer, the Howard Hughes Corp. is required to cover the initial funding for the partnership. Most additional funds will come from specified developer contributions as downtown is developed.

The partnership will collect an annual fee from commercial property owners of 25 cents per square foot. Half of the money collected is to be used to implement transit services. Those services, Thompson said, could range from a downtown circulator to a ride share program or various other modes of moving people around downtown.

"Many of the partnerships across the country contract out for those services," he said. "The partnership is the manager of those contracts."

The partnership will also serve as the Downtown Columbia Housing Foundation, which will collect money from developers — $2,000 per residential unit and 5 cents per square foot of commercial space — for the Downtown Columbia Community Housing Fund. The Howard County Housing Commission will use the fund to assist developers in providing affordable housing units, provide low-income residents with rental assistance or homeownership loans and aid in eviction prevention and foreclosure assistance.

Thompson said the bill was drafted to have the Housing Commission administer the affordable housing funds "because they possess that particular expertise."

Board of directors

The partnership will be managed by the Board of directors. The bill specifies that four of the seven board members will be ex officio members, though they will have the same voting rights as the other three members.

The ex officio members will be Howard Hughes senior vice president John DeWolf, Mall in Columbia General Manager Katie Essing, Columbia Association President Phil Nelson and County Executive Ken Ulman.

The other three members will be representatives from Howard Hughes until 500,000 square feet of commercial space is developed in downtown, at which time the county executive shall appoint two members who either own commercial property or a business in downtown or live in close proximately to downtown. The third member must be a commercial property owner in downtown.

Thompson said it's important for the various stakeholders to work together.

"They share common interest and they can leverage their resources much more effectively together than if they were doing it individually," he said.

The board members, who will serve without compensation, do not have term limits. However, appointed members who have served two consecutive three-year terms must take at least one year off before they can be reappointed.

The bill specifies that the board of Directors must meet at least six times a year. It has the authority to create advisory committees.

Within six months of its establishment, the board is to adopt bylaws for the Downtown Columbia Partnership and submit them to the County Council for approval.

The board is also to hire an executive director for the partnership "who has training or experience in managing a downtown district or a similar entity," according to the bill. However, the bill allows for the board to appoint a Howard Hughes employee as executive director until 500,000 square feet of commercial space is developed.

The board also has the authority to hire other staff for the partnership, as necessary.

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