COLUMBIA, SC — It was another shrine for Mayor Bob – his biggest yet.
He’s already got a bench in Sims Park, a city convention center ballroom and an intersection at Forest Drive and I-77 named for him.
Wednesday, Coble – Columbia’s mayor from 1990-2010 – had a wide, open-air terrace alongside the Congaree River in the Vista named for him: Coble Plaza.
“All of this will be a great place for children,” said Coble, 60, in a speech to some 100 people gathered in a meeting room at EdVenturechildren’s museum, which adjoins Coble Plaza.
“You can come and visit the riverfront, go to EdVenture, the State Museum ... and it will be wonderful for everyone.”
Recalling the days when Columbians viewed the riverbank area as a place to put a maximum security prison, Coble said, “The past few decades have seen the transformation of our regions’ rivers from barriers to economic engines. ...The goal was to open up the rivers as community assets and create private sector investment, to improve our economy, create jobs and grow the tax base.”
Speaker after speaker Wednesday said Coble played a major role in that goal.
Mike Dawson, executive director of the River Alliance, recalled how in the early 1990s, Coble got local leaders to meet to discuss the river’s future. One result: the creation of the River Alliance, a river development group whose board members include representatives from Lexington and Richland counties, Columbia, Cayce and West Columbia. Over the years, the River Alliance built nine miles of riverfront walkways and has four more to go, up to Riverbanks Zoo, including a bridge spanning the Broad River.
“Special thanks to Mayor Bob for making this all work, because it wouldn’t have happened without his leadership,” Dawson said.
Current Mayor Steve Benjamin said Coble is one of the best of all the mayors who’ve served since the city was founded in 1786. “It’s an honor to be here today to recognize his service.”
Lexington County Council member Debbie Summers said Coble displayed rare foresight in glimpsing what could be done with local waterways.
“Leadership in today’s world has to be visionary – it has to be people who can imagine what Columbia, the Midlands, will be like 10, 15, 20 years from now,” she said.
Coble Plaza, which overlooks the city’s canal and faces the Congaree River and the Gervais Street bridge, can hold several thousand people, officials said.
Built for $5.1 million, the plaza features an amphitheater and a boardwalk. It cost that much because part of it juts out over water, and special engineering and underpinning was needed to assure stability through the years, officials aid.
The plaza is part of the Three Rivers Greenway, the linear park that will eventually connect downtown Columbia with the upper Saluda River near the Lake Murray dam. People can walk south from Coble Plaza and go under the Gervais Street bridge as part of the recent construction.
The plaza adds to the panache of EdVenture by providing an outdoor space, said EdVenture CEO Catherine Horne. “It’s a great public stage for downtown Columbia,” she said.
Coble Plaza’s first official event is Thursday. Fourth of July festivities open to the public will feature music and other activities. In the future, it is expected to host numerous events, such as concerts and fairs, for children, groups and the general public.
Later, as the crowd dwindled and Coble, now a lawyer-lobbyist, had hugged and shaken hands with scores of folks, he was asked how many other public sites might be named after him.
“I think this is it,” the former mayor said. “Now, I feel a lot of pressure not to get arrested for anything and have my name removed. I’m working hard on clean living.”
More seriously, Coble said, “I feel a real connection to this place. I poured my heart and soul into this project and the Three Rivers Greenway, and I hope it will be a very important public space for the community.”
It was a surprise, he said, when in 2010, after he left the mayor’s post, City Council voted to name the plaza for him. “I’m very honored,” Coble said.