Architecture firm takes Columbia to court in 10-year battle over Vista Convention Center job

The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center
The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center PROVIDED PHOTO

A civil trial set to open Monday at the Richland County courthouse might well give the public a glimpse of how money, politics and Columbia City Council decisions mix.

Current and past Columbia city officials under subpoena to possibly testify include current Mayor Steve Benjamin, former Mayor Bob Coble and former city manager Steve Gantt.

The trial is the latest act in a long legal battle that has gone on some 10 years. It concerns the architect and engineering firm Stevens & Wilkinson, which did design work for the city in the early 2000s to build a 300-room, city-owned convention center hotel in the Vista.

In a legal papers in the case, the city says nothing more is owed than the $697,000 it paid the firm back in 2003 before hiring another firm to finish the job.

“The city denies it owes any more than was already paid,” said Reece Williams, a Columbia attorney who represents the city along with Kathleen McDaniel.

But Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who represents the firm, said, “It has been 10 years of litigation, the matter has been up and back to the Supreme Court, and it is time for Stevens & Wilkinson to get their day in court.”

The case revolves around the simple issue of whether the city authorized extra work for the firm that the firm did, work beyond the scope of the $697,000 the firm was in fact compensated for, said Harpootlian, who is trying the case with attorney Chris Kenney.

Issues in the case began in 2003, when the city was planning to build a city-operated hotel that would work in tandem with the convention center in the now-thriving downtown Vista business district.

In making initial plans to develop the hotel, the city drew up a written memorandum of understanding in 2003 with Stevens & Wilkinson and some other companies. In 2004, the city broke off relations with that development team and chose another firm, the Windsor Aughtry Co. of Greenville, that went on to develop a private hotel. That hotel is the Columbia Hilton.

But up until about March 2004, Stevens & Wilkinson did that additional work with the approval and knowledge of the city, its lawsuit said.

The city, on the other hand, asserts that it never formally approved the additional work and therefore shouldn’t have to pay Stevens & Wilkinson.

In its complaint, the firm did not specify how much money a jury should award, but it asks for “a sum sufficient to compensate it for its actual damages, for the cost of this action, for pre-judgment interest” and other relief.

While Stevens & Wilkinson isn’t specifying a figure, Harpootlian said after last year’s Supreme Court hearing that the firm, even without punitive damages, would be seeking at least $2 million.

Last August, the S.C. Supreme Court, in a 13-page opinion thick with complex language on contract law, ruled that the memorandum of understanding the city signed with Stevens and Wilkinson and other companies didn’t amount to a formal, binding contract because its language wasn’t specific enough to require the city to go ahead with those parties.

However, the high court ruled that a jury would have to determine whether the city owed Stevens & Wilkinson any money beyond the $697,000 it had already paid the firm back in 2003.

State Judge Alison Lee is presiding.