Hundreds of state employees are set to move away from their decades-old, rundown Bull Street office locations in downtown Columbia into two different Midlands campuses.
It’s a move that’s estimated to cost the state $334 million more over 20 years compared to staying put in the old state-owned offices on Bull Street. The additional costs include rent, the cost of moving, renovations to fit the state’s needs, capital costs and operating costs.
The eventual move, then, will leave a prominent property vacant, next door to the vast BullStreet development that’s long been expected to transform one of the major corridors into the capital city. What’s next for the state’s Bull Street office properties is unknown but would have potential to play a role in shaping the future of downtown Columbia.
Under proposals presented Tuesday to the state’s Joint Bond Review Committee, made up of budget-writing lawmakers in the House and Senate, the newly formed Department of Public Health, the Department of Mental Health, the Department Disabilities and Special Needs, and the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug AbuseServices would move to 400 Otarre Parkway in Cayce, as the state would create one campus for all of its health-related agencies.
Meanwhile, the newly formed S.C. Department of Environmental Services would establish its own campus at 1200 Colonial Life Blvd. in Columbia.
Making the moves is meant to help with state employee recruitment, as it’s difficult to find people to work in the current facilities on Bull Street, which need upgrades. The current buildings range from 32 years old to 195 years old.
“If you believe staying in the dilapidated buildings that we have today is appropriate, you can get by with less than the optimal number of employees and put those people who are willing to work for the state in deplorable conditions, then yeah, sure, you could do that,” said state Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.. “But I believe that to recruit the kind of people we want servicing the people in the state of South Carolina, you’ve got to offer some space that’s not that way.”
Talk of relocating these state offices was spawned some time back as state leaders debated splitting the Department of Health and Environmental Control into two agencies, which was approved this year.
Both of the planned new locations, which can each accommodate more than 900 employees, have large group meeting spaces, cafeterias, fitness centers, walking trails and collaborative work spaces.
The alternative — not moving the agencies and making do with the old offices on Bull Street — would cost the state about $161 million over 20 years, as the state would pay for operating costs, renovations and capital costs. But moving to the Otarre Parkway and Colonial Life Boulevard locations would cost the state about $495 million over 20 years.
When state budget writers put together a spending plan next spring for the 2024-25 fiscal year, they will need to set aside at least $17.6 million in one-time costs and $18.7 million in annual costs to allow the move to take place, according to state documents.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, during Tuesday’s hearing where lawmakers approved the move, also recommended agencies consider providing childcare at the new office locations as a way to help recruit and retain employees, even through public-private partnerships.
“If we’re going to talk about a health care campus, for example, and locating and co-locating all of these services, it seems to me that somebody would have given some thought to the notion of childcare, but I appreciate the work. But I’m just a little bit concerned about what I see as a really big outlay,” Cobb-Hunter said.
The facilities would have space for child care, said Marcia Adams, the executive director of the Department of Administration.
The Department of Administration also is tasked with finding a new location for the Department of Social Services, which oversees child welfare. The agency would not have fit on the new health care campus.
Columbia’s burgeoning BullStreet District on the former state mental hospital campus is the site of one of the most significant development projects in city history, including ongoing construction around the Segra Park baseball stadium and planned construction of the University of South Carolina’s Health and Sciences campus.
State offices leaving the BullStreet District could allow those properties to be sold and put on the property tax rolls.
And leasing new locations does come with an advantage for the state, Bannister said.
“If 20 years from now when the building looks like the one on Bull Street, we don’t have to deal with it. It will be somebody else’s problem if it’s not maintained,” Bannister said.