Former Columbia employee challenges city to public forum

COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - After six months working as a business loan officer for the city of Columbia, Scott Blackmon simply walked off the job calling the situation "uglier than ugly."

Since June, Blackmon has been telling anyone who will listen that there are fundamental problems with a city loan program he was hired to clean up. In May, the U.S. Commerce Department suspended the program until the city explains how it spent the money.

Read more CiCi's pizza closure brings to light City of Columbia TMs embattled commercial loan program Another city employee quits amid Columbia loan program investigation City of Columbia employee quits, claims he was asked to break the law Blackmon, an ex-banker with three decades of experience, wants to have an open discussion in a public forum with Columbia's city manager to tell his story about a loan program that is owed millions by borrowers. The program is backed by federal and Columbia taxpayer dollars.

"I would love for Mr. Gantt, you know he's a city employee, you would think he would want to go on television with me and we could just sit and talk," said Blackmon. "As Barney of Mayberry would say it's a mess. It's a total disaster."

According to documents released by the city last week, roughly a third of the businesses granted loans owe roughly $2.7 million to the city program. However, Blackmon says the amount is more than twice that.

"When I was with the city we talked about transparency and everybody talked about transparency, we would show our records to anybody," said Blackmon. "Well, they haven't done a very good job of showing their records to anybody."

Blackmon says the city's recent records release ignores the Columbia Empowerment Zone portion of the program, one of three loan programs at issue. He says the others include the Commercial Economic Renaissance Development Fund and the Commercial Revolving Loan Fund.

In July 2010, city leaders cut the ribbon on the high-profile product of the Empowerment Zone program along North Main Street. A Cici's Pizza restaurant opened in a new plaza with a loan from that program, and at the time, city officials pitched it as a lightning rod for economic success in the economically depressed area.

"This is going to be a magnet for new development throughout this area and I think you can see what's going on," said Columbia city councilman Sam Davis at the restaurant's grand opening ceremony in July 2010.

Several businesses eventually moved in, but 14 months after Cici's opened, the restaurant is no longer open, shutting down over the summer, and still owes the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's one of at least a dozen businesses that need to pay up, and some Columbia city council members says they are watching.

"These are not gifts, these are loans," said councilwoman Belinda Gergel. "I think the city manager has taken some very positive steps to take a look at what the issues are with our loan programs and make sure that we have the mechanisms in place to do everything we can to retrieve and recoup those monies."

City manager Steve Gantt says the loans in default are being reviewed to see if they can be restructured and has shuffled the city's community development office. WACH Fox tried to contact Gantt to ask about the status of the loan program and what the city is doing to help remedy the situation, but he did not respond to our inquiry.

Meanwhile, Scott Blackmon wonders how a program with good intentions went bad.

"It was all set up to create jobs, to create a tax base, to have a new business there, and it was a great idea," said Blackmon. "Somehow or another when the loans got on the books they got forgotten."