Originally created 05/24/04

Sanford pushes sale of State Hospital property



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Governor Mark Sanford wants the 178-acre central campus of the State Hospital near downtown Columbia sold this year to put the estimated $32 million in proceeds toward the state's budget deficit. But local politicians question whether the state can line up the right developer in time.

When the General Assembly approved the state's $5.5 billion budget last week, it gave the State Budget and Control Board authority to sell off numerous properties around the state deemed surplus.

The State Hospital property and its 50 buildings were at the top of the list.

Columbia City Councilwoman Anne Sinclair said there is a lot of excitement about developing the property, but "the most significant" land deal in decades will take some time to complete. Several challenges, including the size and price of the property and the extensive restoration to the historic buildings, could delay the sale.

"I think it's highly unlikely it can be sold this year," she said.

Sanford disagrees.

"The governor has been in the real estate business, his chief of staff is a real estate lawyer and they both are confident they can get this done and done quickly," Sanford's spokesman Will Folks said.

Spokesman Michael Sponhour said the five-member Budget and Control Board has yet to discuss the property. "But the sooner we get the process rolling, the better."

The board could not take up the matter or even schedule a meeting until after the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Sponhour said it's too early to decide whether the land will be sold as one tract or broken up into smaller parcels. "Obviously our staff will bring forth a recommendation," he said.

Ike McLeese, president and chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, says the land is a hot commodity. "Interest is very high," he said. "This is about the largest piece of property to come available in the urban area any time in the foreseeable future."

The size of the tract and the challenges involved have some developers worried.

The oldest building on the campus, the Mills Building, is not up for sale, but its classic style should set the tone for the redevelopment, preservationists say. Restoration of the historic Babcock Building, with its distinctive red cupola, is estimated at $20 million alone. Other, newer buildings are filled with asbestos, which means developers would face an expensive removal process if they want to reuse the buildings.

"The problem with this property is it's not residential or commercial, it's both," said Stewart Mungo, of Mungo Homes, one of the area's largest residential developers. "Very few people do both things well."

Mayor Bob Coble said the city won't purchase the property.

"The private sector is red hot, and it will develop that property," he said. "But we want to make sure it's done in a manner that's consistent with the surrounding neighborhoods."

Councilwoman Sinclair said it's too early to determine what the mix of commercial and residential zoning will be.

"We are not trying to hamstring anyone," Sinclair said. "But we want it compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods."