Coble: How our barrier became our bridge

Guest ColumnistJuly 14, 2013 

— The past two decades have seen a transformation of our region’s rivers from barriers and dividing lines into economic engines.

Twenty years ago, there were still inmates at Central Correctional Institution, the idea of the Gamecocks playing baseball along the Congaree was laughable, the River Alliance did not exist, and most people viewed the Saluda, Broad and Congaree rivers as a wall.

But spurred on by a visit to Nashville and an impassioned plea by the late Butch Spires that “the rivers should bring us together,” we began to change that. Today we have the Three Rivers Greenway and all the significant economic development that has accompanied it.

The vision was to open up the rivers as community assets and create private-sector investment to improve our economy, create jobs, increase the tax base and bring new residents downtown. Developing both sides of the river was a regional, public-private effort similar to the convention center.

The results have been remarkable. The West Columbia and Cayce Riverwalks are stunning. On the Columbia/Richland side, we have seen the canal diversion dam and Riverfront Park improvements, the canal embankment greenway, CanalSide and the Esplande, EdVenture, the new additions to the State Museum, Granby Park, Olympia and Granby mills and now Coble Plaza. The Carolina Baseball Stadium opened in 2009 as an example of how the initial investment and planning spurred additional investment not even dreamed of 20 years ago. The world-famous Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden has made the Saluda River accessible to hundreds of thousands of citizens and visitors.

Many people over many years worked to make the transformation of our rivers possible. Then-Rep. Jean Toal worked tirelessly to get the state to close and sell the CCI site to Columbia. Columbia City Council members and city managers worked to complete the sale and redevelop the property, along with city staff led by Jim Gambrell. The creation of the River Alliance and the TIF funding that helped pay for some of the projects would not have happened without Cayce, West Columbia, Richland and Lexington counties, Richland School District 1 and the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. The River Alliance was formed in 1995 under the direction of Mike Dawson and has been the catalyst for the greenway ever since.

There are lessons we should learn from our success.

First, our community has to take advantage of the assets we have. No community has rivers that are as beautiful as the Saluda, Broad and Congaree.

Second, public planning, public infrastructure and consensus building over time can overcome any obstacle. When the late Andrew Sorensen led everyone at a Columbia Technology Summit 10 years ago in singing a children’s song about working together, he delivered a simple but powerful message: Working together can produce dramatic changes for a community.

Finally, community vision requires persistence. It has been a long, hard effort with many hurdles — difficulty acquiring land and connectivity, environmental issues and the Great Recession — but persistence over time produced results. This persistence continues with Mayor Steve Benjamin, the Columbia City Council, the Richland County Council and the River Alliance on track to complete and connect the greenways.

The Coble Plaza in front of EdVenture was originally called the Canalfront Terrace Building and Park. My family and I are very appreciative of the honor Columbia City Council has done us by renaming it, but clearly this has been a community effort. My hope is that this plaza will be a wonderful public space for our citizens, and particularly our children, to enjoy the museums, the green space and the rivers.

Mr. Coble, a Columbia attorney, served as mayor from 1990 through 2010; contact him at

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