Greyhound corporate officials will be in Columbia next week to tour potential sites for a new bus station as the company looks to leave the Gervais Street address where it has been for about 30 years.
The lease between Greyhound and the property owner expires in July, said Buddy Hoffman, the owner of Hoffman Travel, which operates the station under a contract with Greyhound. The property is for sale.
The bus company needs to find a new location, “or we’re going to be working out of a tent somewhere,” Hoffman said.
The 3-acre lot at 2001 Gervais St., near the intersection with Harden Street, is on the market for $2.75 million, said James Spangler, a broker for Fuzion Business and Real Estate Solutions.
“We’re by no means going to throw them out,” Spangler said. But the site near Five Points and blocks from the State House is prime real estate, he said. “We’d love to have somebody come in and do redevelopment on it.”
The bus station’s departure from downtown may be considered good news by those who live and work nearby. For years, there have been complaints about crime and other problems associated with the bus station’s customers, particularly former inmates getting released from state prisons. But finding another neighborhood that will welcome a bus station with open arms may be a challenge.
The bus company promises to work with public officials in finding a new location that fits its needs as well as the community’s, Hoffman said.
“We don’t want to have a public battle over a site but, then again, we’ve got to have a site,” he said.
Already, Greyhound has received opposition from public officials who learned the company was eyeing property on Decker Boulevard.
Now, the company has scrapped plans to locate there, Hoffman said.
The Decker location was not going to be suitable anyway, he said, because the building was severely damaged and has a mold problem.
“It was going to cost a pretty penny to fix it up,” Hoffman said.
While he did not have specific locations, Hoffman said the company also would be looking at space on Garners Ferry Road near I-77 and off North Main Street near I-20.
The Greyhound station operates 24 hours a day, as 20 buses and hundreds of people pass through the terminal.
Hoffman, who has operated the station as an independent contractor for 10 years, said the station closed for a day during February’s ice storm – the first time he recalled locking the doors.
The bus company no longer needs the 20,000 square feet it occupies on Gervais Street, he said. Half of the space is no longer used after the company closed a maintenance depot.
The station needs enough indoor space to house a ticket counter, a sitting area, bathrooms and a place to sell drinks and snacks. It needs about 4,000 square feet, Hoffman said.
And the new location’s parking lot needs to be large enough to hold five or six buses at one time.
Easy interstate access is preferred. And the station needs to be centrally located and have access to other modes of transportation, said Lanesha Gipson, a Greyhound spokeswoman.
The rub with the Greyhound station for years has been the S.C. Department of Corrections inmate dropoff program.
And that is one reason several public officials met Tuesday with Hoffman to oppose a move to Decker Boulevard.
The meeting included S.C. Rep. Beth Bernstein, S.C. Sen. Joel Lourie, Richland County Councilman Jim Manning, Richland 2 superintendent Debra Hamm, Arcadia Lakes Mayor Mark Huguley and Richland County Sheriff’s Capt. Cole Porter.
They presented a united front against placing a bus station within walking distance of four schools and in a building that abutted residential neighborhoods, Bernstein and Porter said.
The prison dropoff was a major concern, especially because the bus station would have been on the same block as Dent Middle School, said Porter, who commands the sheriff’s department’s northeast region, which includes Decker.
“We don’t feel that would have been a good situation,” he said. Plus, business owners and the county are “spending a lot of money out there and having a Greyhound bus station there would not be suitable.”
The corrections department contracts with Greyhound to provide bus tickets to prisoners who do have no one to pick them up from their correctional facilities.
But a recent change in the department’s release schedule has reduced the number of former inmates riding the buses because it encourages them to find rides.
The department used to release all prisoners on the same day each month, and hundreds of them accepted the free bus ticket. Most ended up in Columbia. Ten prisons in the Midlands take prisoners straight to the Columbia bus station, and inmates from other prisons pass through because Columbia is a hub.
In January, the corrections department changed its policy so that inmates who arrange for a family member or friend to pick them up get out on the earliest day state law allows. A bus rider has to wait a few more days, said Bryan Stirling, the corrections department’s new director.
For example, those scheduled for release in March were allowed to leave Friday if they had someone pick them up at the prison. Bus riders will not leave until Monday, meaning they would spend an extra weekend in prison, Stirling said.
The new policy already has reduced the number of ex-prisoners riding buses through Columbia.
In the first three months of 2014, 492 fewer inmates have accepted bus tickets when compared to the first three months of 2013, according to numbers provided by Stirling. For the March release, 81 people will take a bus home, compared to 272 inmates who rode buses in March 2013.
The corrections department has made other changes:
• It pays for a sheriff’s deputy to be at the bus station from 3:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on the days prisoners are released.
• Prisoners are no longer dropped off on Fridays. Before, some were arriving at the bus station in the wee hours of Friday morning when college students were still out and about in Five Points.
• Corrections officers drive inmates to the bus station an hour before their departure. Previously, they all were taken at one time with the first loads arriving around 3:30 a.m., which left some prisoners hanging around for hours.
Because of those changes, people in the community should no longer be overly concerned about the inmate dropoffs, Hoffman said.
“It’s almost a moot point now,” he said.
As for arguments that a bus station brings down a neighborhood, Gipson disagreed.
“It has been our experience that crime, litter and other factors that are considered to be characteristics of a ‘bad neighborhood’ are neighborhood issues,” she said. “While our customers are generally of moderate means, they are hard-working, hard-studying folks, including college students, families, veterans and many others traveling in part because they want to make their lives better.
“When cities and neighborhoods are committed to improving a neighborhood, Greyhound is eager to work with them.”
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.