COLUMBIA, SC — Saluda Shoals Park, which lures hundreds of thousands of people each year to its wooded trails, environmental programs and meeting space, soon will expand its reach to soccer and tennis players and their families.
The ever-evolving park’s latest stage – officially called the Fields at Saluda Shoals – will begin to take shape Thursday with the 11 a.m. ground-breaking ceremony for a $6.5 million expansion. The soccer fields and tennis courts will replace what once was an industrial complex, purchased in 2004 for $2.4 million by the Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission.
The expansion will be paid for from the $18 million tax-funded bond for recreation improvements approved by Lexington County Council in 2012. The existing portion of Saluda Shoals Park drew more than 500,000 visitors last year to explore the riverfront just downstream from the Lake Murray dam and enjoy events such as Holiday Lights on the River, the arts-oriented Unearth and the music and barbecue of Pickin’ and Piggin’.
In terms of visitors, the park ranks in the Midlands behind only Riverbanks Zoo, which has averaged about 1 million per year, and well ahead of Sesquicentennial State Park (about 180,000 per year) and Congaree National Park (about 120,000 per year).
The 127 acres being used for the new expansion originally was purchased as the site for a proposed water park, but voters struck down that idea in a referendum. Later, county leaders pushed for an arena to be built there as home for the Columbia Inferno professional hockey team. Those plans fell through, leading to the current version of the park expansion.
“When we went through our master planning process, we understood we needed these types of facilities,” said Elizabeth Taylor, executive director of the recreation agency. “We had this land, and we had to look at it for those uses.”
In many ways, the new section will be like a separate park from the existing Saluda Shoals, which has no sports playing fields. The nearly 60-acre section around the old BC Components building had no trees, so it wasn’t suitable for nature-based programming, Taylor said.
Capacitors were built by General Electric and then BC Components on the site, and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, was left behind in the soil. Last summer, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control removed the top layer of contaminated soil and the agency has proclaimed the site safe for use after extensive testing. The recreation agency put an additional soil cap over the once-contaminated areas, Taylor said.
While several residential developments separate the current park entrance on Old Bush River Road and the new entrance on 6107 St. Andrews Road, the two sections are connected by a paved trail along a strip of wooded riverfront. For several years, that trail ended on the edge of the industrial property.
The nearly 60 wooded acres of the new section along the river will be home to more trails and a zipline and ropes course. Conceptual drawings done early in the planning process show the zipline running from a parking area near St. Andrews Road back to the river, but the agency is leaning toward keeping the zipline course entirely in the wooded area near the river, Taylor said.
The agency believes the recreational use of the river will explode with a new boat launch/takeout at the east end of the park. A paved road in the park will connect the new launch site with the old launch site at the west end of the park, about 13/4 miles upstream. That will allow people to park in the new section, take park shuttle vehicles to the west end, rent canoes, kayaks or tubes, then paddle back down the river to where they left their vehicles.
The bulk of the people visiting the new section of Saluda Shoals, however, will be using the tennis courts and soccer fields. Six of the 10 tennis courts will have a clay-like surface known as hydrocourt, which is easier on joints than hard courts. Two of the eight soccer fields will be recessed, surrounded by berms that make for better viewing of games by fans on the sidelines.
The agency plans to use the fields and courts for its own programs. Currently, it has a small youth soccer program and partners with the Central League, the largest adult soccer program in the Midlands. The tennis courts will amount to only a two-court addition for the agency because eight courts at nearby Seven Oaks Park will be torn up soon to be used for parking.
Taylor envisions weekend soccer or tennis tournaments drawing many participants and families from outside the area. “It should be a real economic boost to the Seven Oaks area,” she said, noting that retail traffic in the area has been cut with the closing of the Kmart in the Seven Oaks Plaza.
Nick Meidanis, owner of nearby Deno’s Fine Foods, agreed. “More traffic is better for the business, that’s true,” Meidanis said. “How much it will help, it’s hard to say.”