Columbia awards $4.5M in food and drink tax grants without usual committee input | Columbia News

COLUMBIA — The city of Columbia has awarded millions of grant dollars from the taxes collected on food and drink sales, bypassing the committee that typically vets such grants for the second year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least one potential recipient whose event wasn’t awarded any grant money questioned the amended process of City Council members overseeing and distributing the money as seemingly arbitrary and adding confusion to a system that was already laborious.

City officials say council members had to take over the distribution because of the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic cast on hospitality tax revenue, in addition to the logistical difficulty of having the advisory committee meet virtually amid COVID to vet projects and interview those who applied for money.

The 2 percent hospitality tax on food and drinks in the city generated $4.5 million in grant money for the 2021-22 budget year, including some surplus from the previous year. Organizations can apply for hospitality grants for projects or events related to drawing tourism or diners to the city.

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Organizers have to prove the proposed uses are eligible and provide receipts before being reimbursed from the grant program.

Among the larger awards were $700,000 to the Columbia Museum of Art for operations, marketing and exhibits; $355,000 to the Five Points Association for St. Pat’s in Five Points and other programs and marketing; and $415,000 to the Congaree Vista Guild, which promotes the Vista shopping and dining district.

Phill Blair, owner of The Whig restaurant and bar on Main Street and an organizer of the annual Jam Room Music Festival, said festival organizers were surprised to learn the event had not been awarded any money when council approved the list of grants Aug. 3.

The festival, a free event on Main Street held annually before the pandemic, requested $90,000 and received none.

“I think we’re in a situation now where we might have to wait until next year to do the show,” Blair said. “That was a weird left turn that nobody expected.”

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The hospitality tax committee typically considers grant applications individually before members bring their thoughts to the group. Applicants are invited to interview with the committee and answer any questions or provide more detail to their applications, said Terry Davis, the most recent chair of the committee whose term has expired.

The process wasn’t practical amid the financial and logistical uncertainty for the past two years amid the pandemic, Davis said, and council temporarily taking over the process was a logical step.

“The last two times have been so odd because of COVID and with a lot of groups not being able to hold events and lower financial intake because of restaurants closing last year,” said Davis, a former part owner of Thirsty Fellow. “So it kind of had to be finagled without the group getting together.”

Some money, such as $70,000 for the 701 Center for Contemporary Art and $56,000 for the Rosewood Crawfish Festival, was approved by council without having yet received a formal application. Those are instances where council members knew requests are coming and will be contingent on proper documentation, said Councilman Howard Duvall, who oversaw the grant selections.

Regardless of the process, someone always ends up feeling left out from the final list, Duvall said. The city received $5.8 million in requests and officials had to whittle down over $1 million for the final list.

Still, the $4.5 million was more in line with pre-pandemic levels. The city approved about $5.6 million in hospitality tax allocations for the 2019-20 budget year — $3 million more than it planned for in 2020 as the pandemic closed restaurants and other businesses throughout the city.

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Duvall sent each council member a spreadsheet with the grant requests and had them award money as each saw fit. The final list was workshopped from those responses.

Council members seemed to find the task of narrowing the list arduous without the committee.

“I’m going to take great pleasure in turning this process back over to the committee next year,” Duvall told The Post and Courier.

Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, a candidate for mayor, noted during a meeting Aug. 3 to approve the grants that council members hadn’t yet seen the completed list they were to vote on. Budget Director Missy Caughman left to print copies of the list and the council voted to approve it later in the meeting.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said during the meeting the committee process needs to return and other council members agreed.

All of the 11-member hospitality tax advisory committee’s appointments expired in March, and the city recently advertised each of the positions to begin the process of choosing a new panel.

The group will not have to meet until spring of 2022, when the city begins considering the next round of grants.

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.