Board OKs $13 million in bonds for University of South Carolina's Innovista

COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina received authorization Wednesday to borrow $13 million to outfit more research space at its high-tech hub that Gov. Nikki Haley referred to as a mess.


The Budget and Control Board voted unanimously to approve funding for phase two of USC’s Innovista project, despite Haley opening the presentation saying, “With all due respect, what a mess.” State government’s five-member financial oversight board is chaired by the governor.

“It does feel like we’re throwing good money after bad, but to not do it makes it worse,” Haley said before the vote.

The bonds will pay half the cost of preparing 47,000 square feet worth of offices and laboratories for research in nuclear science, hydrogen, fuel cells and the aerospace industry.

The project involves finishing two vacant floors of an Innovista building in downtown Columbia.

The matching money is supplied by IBM and the Air Force.

USC consultant Rick Kelly told board members that while Innovista did not work as planned in 2005, it has met the goals of generating research and jobs.

“Innovista has not been as big a disaster as some have led us to believe,” said Kelly, USC’s retired chief financial officer.

In 2005, total funded research at USC was $166 million. By 2011, that had risen to $227 million, according to the college. As of Wednesday evening, USC had not provided The Associated Press with details on total spending and jobs created.

The project was envisioned as a public-private partnership aimed at nurturing high-tech companies, with two public research buildings and two more private structures.

The $13 million bond allows USC to finish outfitting the second public building, called Horizon I. Final construction of the first building, named Discovery 1, is under way.

Problems with developers and the economic downturn prevented progress on the private side.

Kelly said it’s cheaper for companies to rent space in vacant buildings downtown than pay for new space.

“The economy has to change for those buildings to be built,” said Kelly, who presented the idea to the Budget and Control Board back in 2005.

He argues Innovista is about an idea, rather than buildings. He said he never should have touted the project as about buildings.

“The disappointment has been looking back at how it was funded and the lack of private-sector participation in coming together of all this long view,” said Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom. “What we need to keep focused on, the intent is being achieved, even though how we got to this point didn’t go as planned.”