Uptown Columbus Inc., the organization steering the redevelopment of the downtown area, will have to continue its mission without financial support from the city — at least for now.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson eliminated the nonprofit’s annual subsidy in her fiscal year 2018 recommended budget, along with funding for other service and cultural organizations such as the Naval Museum and Keep Columbus Beautiful.
Ross Horner, president and CEO of Uptown Columbus and the Business Improvement District, appeared at a city budget meeting on Tuesday hoping to convince Columbus Council to continue the funding. He was accompanied by Reynolds Bickerstaff, the organization’s board chair, and Robert Watkins, a board member.
Uptown was the only non-government agency to make a presentation at the budget meeting. In addition to Horner’s pitch for funding, councilors also heard from several city entities, including the sheriff’s, tax assessor’s, public works, information technology, engineering, clerk of council and police departments.
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“I know this is unusual in this process for the city to have an agency to come up,” Horner said. “This year, I think it’s important to really take a look at what Uptown Columbus provides from the support previously from the city of Columbus.”
After that brief introduction, Horner showed a video documenting the transformation of the downtown area over the past 30 years. The commercial included images of downtown restaurants, whitewater rafting and other amenities.
Horner said Uptown Inc. received $25,000 from the city in 2016. For every dollar provided by the city, businesses generated $72 in direct sales tax payments back to the city, accounting for 4 percent of the sales taxes in Muscogee County. He said Uptown also:
- Spends more than $12,000 per year on contracted maintenance in Woodruff Park.
- Pays for all maintenance, chemicals, power and water associated with the Splash Pad and playground, costing approximately $30,000 annually.
- Remits $35,000 in fees from Whitewater and zip line related activities to the city.
- Spends more than $90,000 to provide free events to the public, including Friday night concerts, Market Days, Riverfest, Broadway Holiday, Spooktacular and Buds & Burgers.
Horner said the city subsidy accounted for about 6.5 percent of the organization’s budget this year, and he hoped the public/private partnership would continue. He said Uptown has been a good investment for the city, and a driver of tourism for the community. He said the city had 30,000 whitewater rafting and 14,000 zip line trips last year.
“Over the last six years, we’ve grown 43 percent in total gross receipts in the Uptown area,” he said. “These are Uptown businesses returning a huge investment back to the city in sales tax receipts. One of the things that we know is that the pie is not just getting split up, the pie is getting bigger. In the last three years we’ve gained 37 new businesses and only lost three.”
Councilors commended the organization for the transformation of Uptown and the impact it has had on the city.
“It’s an amazing attraction, and it’s well-documented that any successful, thriving community, at its heart is a very vibrant downtown,” said Councilor Skip Henderson, chair of the budget meeting. “... You all do an amazing job.”
But in the end, the money just isn’t there, Henderson said. And councilors suggested that Horner try again next year.
“Our revenues came in about $4 million shy this year,” said Henderson. “And we’re just like you. It’s so tight that whenever those numbers don’t hit, there’s a real consequence.”