Editorial: Columbia’s downtown relevant again

January 22, 2013 

— COLUMBIA’S downtown is relevant again, and with each announcement of a new arrival along Main Street, the capital city’s principal artery takes on a new air of vibrancy.

Among the latest developments is news that Agape Senior will move its corporate headquarters to three buildings in the 1600 block of Main Street. Agape, one of the state’s largest health-care providers for seniors, also will open a vegan cafe, a 24-hour public fitness center and a pharmacy, among other things.

While it might be too soon to declare that Main Street is back, it’s certainly well on its way. From the new restaurants and retail establishments and the return of a local farmers market to an intriguing experiment with an ice-skating rink during the holidays and a second successful run of the Famously Hot New Year’s Eve gala, Columbia is primed to get its downtown into gear.

Agape Senior, now headquartered in West Columbia, will occupy more than 43,000 square feet of space at 1614, 1620 and 1626 Main St. The plan includes creating a landscaped alley connecting Agape’s complex to the new $11.3 million, 532-space parking garage at Taylor and Sumter streets.

The health-care provider will move about 100 of its headquarters staff into the Kimbrell’s building, which will house not only offices but also a 250-seat auditorium and a 3,000-square-foot conference center to train the company’s 1,900 employees.

The $8 million renovation project will take up nearly half the block and will sit across from Mast General Store and the new Nickelodeon Theater, which, along with other new stores and restaurants such as Something Special Florist and The Oak Table, have helped fuel downtown’s revival.

And there’s more to come. The Brennen Building, Main Street’s oldest, is being renovated. There also is a plan in the works to transform the biggest reminder of the downtown slump that Columbia has spent years — and millions of dollars — trying to overcome. A developer wants to turn the 20-story Palmetto Center, vacated in 2009 by SCANA and its 900-employee workforce, into dorms that would house hundreds of students. If this pans out, it would greatly increase downtown traffic and provide area eateries and other businesses with new customers.

Columbia has struggled to make Main Street a major retail and commercial corridor with only limited success. If it can continue this momentum, that bodes well not just for the city but for the entire region. A strong, vibrant city core is key to sustaining a growing, thriving region.

While the Midlands has fast-growing, desirable suburban areas, the fact is that they need a strong city center to remain so — and vice versa.

Like so many, Columbia’s downtown had been dormant and irrelevant for so long that it appeared that it would never rebound. But its resurgence and its growing popularity suggests that downtowns aren’t totally a thing of the past. Or at least not this one.

Downtowns still can have an appeal like no other area of a community; when they work, they help establish identity and a sense of place. They’re rallying points, intersections where people come together to socialize, engage in commerce and hash out the business of the day.

If things keep looking up the way they are, we soon will be able to count downtown Columbia among those that work. And the entire Midlands will be the better for it.

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