North Columbia struggles with ways to attract reluctant retailers

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 26, 2013 

COLUMBIA SC The challenges and tensions over how to attract new businesses to North Columbia showed themselves Tuesday during a Columbia City Council committee meeting.

Community leaders pressed city officials to help find ways to invest in the area, change its reputation and bring about a future that residents desire.

“If they would build it, I think it would happen,” Tommy Burkett, chairman of the North Main Business Association, said of community support for more retailers.

Community opposition to a proposed 50-plus-unit, gated apartment complex on the 3700 block of North Main – one of the largest proposed investments in the area – triggered City Council to examine ways to achieve for that part of Columbia success similar to the Vista entertainment district. Neighbors complained that their community needs restaurants and other businesses they can walk to, not more residents.

The Economic and Community Development Committee began tackling the tough issue but reached no conclusions Tuesday.

City staffers pointed out that neighborhoods along North Main Street up to I-20 are not attracting many new residents or those with higher incomes, citing demographics. That part of town does not have the essential customer base that retailers seek.

“I’m really getting sick and tired of hearing that,” Burkett told the committee. “You don’t understand the magnitude of the people who have moved into North Columbia.”

Jim Gambrell, Columbia’s chief business recruiter, said of the central requirement all retailers seek is the numbers of customers who would buy from them. “It’s a universal that can’t be denied,” Gambrell said.

Felicia Maloney, a city staffer who works to develop the North Main neighborhood, pointed out that several businesses that ventured into that corridor have closed. “There are great concerns about all the business failures,” she said.

Burkett and others who spoke insist the numbers don’t paint a true picture of the community.

“We’re not making it up,” city manager Teresa Wilson said.

Among the issues council will review is whether to change zoning along major thoroughfares, whether to update the five-year-old master plan for North Main and how to market the community better by highlighting its strengths.

Some of those include easy access to interstates from key corridors that bring commuters through the neighborhood. They would stop and shop if new retailers would open their doors, community leaders said.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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