It’s been nearly half a decade since the University of South Carolina began the Discovery I building on its Innovista research campus, but the school finally appears to have a plan in place to complete the structure.
Not only that, USC looks like it’s going to take another stab at moving forward with the private development aspect of the project, which has never gotten off the ground – literally or figuratively.
USC’s board of trustees has approved $15.5 million – money taken from federal research grants – to complete Innovista’s Discovery I building.
If the state Budget and Control Board gives its approval during its June 14 meeting, USC will be able to go ahead with the interior work needed to finish the final three floors of the five-story structure.
University officials expect to seek bids by the end of the year with completion of Discovery I set for August 2013.
More than $100 million in public money already has been pumped into Innovista, and the planned private aspect of the development hasn’t materialized because developers couldn’t secure financing, in part because of legal issues and the downturn in the economy.
Still, university officials say they haven’t given up on the public-private partnership.
Innovista director Don Herriott said in a written statement that a “formal request of information and/or proposal is planned to be issued within the next several months for collaboration between Innovista and private developers and/or companies.”
However, to date not much has gone according to smoothly, or according to plan.
Much of Discovery I has remained empty since exterior construction was completed in 2008 because USC lacked funds to complete the up-fit.
The original plans called for Discovery I to be finished in February 2008. Another publicly funded building, Horizon I, remains uncompleted, as well.
It appears it will cost at least $130 million in federal, state and local tax dollars to complete the two public Innovista buildings and parking structures, although plans for the completion of Horizon I are still being refined depending on researchers’ needs, Lamb said.
The $15.5 million for Discovery I has come from federal research grants the university has received over the past three years.
According to university spokeswoman Margaret Lamb, up to 21 percent of federal research grant money can be used “to support research facilities.”
In fiscal year 2010, University of South Carolina researchers were awarded $218.8 million in funding, and over the past three years the school has taken in approximately $650 million, Lamb said.
The vast majority of the money taken in last year came from the federal government: about $154 million. Of the overall total for 2010, $140.9 million, of 64.4 percent, went to actual research; $59.8 million went to public service; and $18.1 million went to teaching, according to USC.
The university’s decision to rely on publicly financed development for Innovista would seem to differ markedly from what was being said a few years ago, when plans for the research campus were still in its nascent stages.
“Public-private partnerships are the only way to do projects of this scope,” an official with Sasaki Associates of Boston, which prepared the master plan for Innovista, told The State newspaper in April 2006.
“The infrastructure investment is expected to generate $875 million in private development over 15 years, create thousands of jobs and generate millions in tax revenue,” the newspaper added.
Those words seem particularly arresting given that Innovista’s private structures have never gotten beyond the planning stages.
Proposals for a private developer to erect a pair of companion buildings, to be named Horizon II and Discovery II, flopped when separate developers failed to recruit tenants or secure financing.
Eventually, both developers were dismissed, and Innovista executive director John Parks resigned after an internal investigation revealed he failed to tell his supervisors that one of the developers, Kale Roscoe, had served time in prison for tax evasion.
While Parks did bear responsibility for not disclosing the hiring of Roscoe, questions were raised as to why someone else within the USC family didn’t catch on to Roscoe’s past – which showed up through a simple Google search – and whether others within the administration knew more about Roscoe than was publicly disclosed by the school.
According to Herriott, who replaced Parks, USC has revisited its “private building strategy taking lessons learned from the past.”
Private buildings and private companies are essential to building a robust knowledge economy in South Carolina, he said in a statement.
To date, however, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that private companies remain unimpressed with Innovista.
On the Innovista website is a page titled “Public/Private Partnership.” It begins with the following: “Innovista would not be possible without the cooperation and contributions of a number of public and private entities”; and lists 25 different bodies, organizations, companies or individuals.
All but three receive at least a portion of their funding from government, with some receiving all or nearly all funding from taxpayers.
Of the three that don’t fall into the public or quasi-public category – advertising agency Chernoff Newman, architecture firm Sasaki Associates Inc., and Columbia businessman John Lumpkin Jr. – the first two were paid, and likely quite handsomely, for work done on behalf of Innovista. The latter served as interim director of the project from September 2005 to January 2007.
That hardly represents the kind of buy-in from the business sector that one expects from a development consistently touted as a public-private partnership.
Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.