Columbia facade program to dress up North Main

08/03/2012 12:00 AM

08/03/2012 12:29 AM

When David Withers and his business partner Grant Lorick were looking for a place to relocate their suburban Something Special Florist shop to downtown Columbia, the old Silver’s building seemed like a great location: It was catty-cornered from the nostalgic Mast General store, around the corner from a new parking garage and in the center of Main Street’s renaissance.

The problem was it was ugly — a bad choice for a business that deals in beauty.

But with the help of a $20,000 forgivable loan from the city of Columbia Commercial Façade Improvement Program, Withers and Lorick were able to change the worn, outdated storefront into an attractive draw for their very discriminating customers — brides.

“We wouldn’t have moved in here with it looking like it did,” said Withers, showing off the large French doors, attractive windows, appealing sign and columned front. The loan “was just a fraction of what we spent, but every little bit helps.”

The $426,000 downtown façade program, which is just wrapping up in Main Street’s central business district, is credited with helping to leverage $6.6 million in new development – from the Palms apartment building, to the restoration of the historic Brennan Building, to stalwart merchants like Mark’s Menswear.

On Wednesday, city officials will announce an expansion of that program to North Main Street, a $150,000 pool to fund façade improvements from Elmwood Avenue north to I-20. The announcement will be made at a gathering at Chelsea’s, a new restaurant at the corner of Main and Laurel streets that also used a façade grant to spruce up their business.

“If Phase Two can realize a fraction of the success we saw with Phase One, then we will have accomplished something great,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin wrote in an email. “This has the potential to fundamentally change the game on North Main Street and I can’t wait to get started.”

This will be the second time that North Main merchants will have a shot at forgivable loans to fund building improvements.

From 2001-2003 façade grants were issued through the city’s federal Empowerment Zone program. Trouble was, not many North Main building owners took advantage of them.

Many building owners were suspicious that there would be “red tape” associated with the loans, and the application and review process was very complicated.

City Council member Sam Davis said this time around, the application process has been streamlined and many of those fears have been allayed because of the program’s success in Main Street’s business district.

“Some of the ground rules have been modified and it’s a lot simpler; paperwork has been minimized,” he said. “We can see the impact it has had in the city center area and there is a lot of interest.”

One big difference between the downtown and North Main programs is the amount of money available.

Merchants downtown could leverage up to $20,000 on a minimum $100,000 project. That’s relatively easy for big time developers and banks who were working on Main Street. The McCrory/Silver’s project, which includes Something Special Florist, came in at $1.7 million for Charleston’s Adam’s Development Co.

“Merchants on North Main will be limited to half that amount, but city staff is working to increase that pool,” said Tina Herbert, executive director of the city office of business opportunity.

The difference in amounts is because developers in the central business district were faced with some bigger challenges because they are in an historic district. Developers such as First Citizens Bank — which is restoring the Brennan Building, former home of the Capitol Café and the oldest building on Main Street — must conform to strict historic preservation guidelines, driving the cost of façade and building repairs way up.

Merchants on North Main generally are not faced with those kinds of restrictions. They also are not as certain that the cost of improvements – 80 percent of which will come from their own pockets — will translate into success as they have along bustling Main Street.

“It’s a good thing, but they need to put more teeth into it,” said Henry Hopkins, longtime Eau Claire and North Columbia activist.

He said long awaited streetscaping needs to occur between Beltline Boulevard and Columbia College, and a strong public relations campaign needs to be conducted to attract and nurture businesses in the corridor.

The city has spent millions in the area to attract businesses, but everything seems to fail except mail shops and other low level service shops. North Main Deli, Cici’s Pizza and Houston’s Low Country Grill have all come and gone within the past five years.

But boosters say the façade program will be a step in the right direction — improving the look or the area and making buildings more attractive for potential tenants. Money is available to repair doors and windows, improve lighting and signage and install awnings.

“The dollars that are available are a start,” Davis said. “I’m hoping that in the long run, business owners will take advantage of it and it’s going to add to the appearance of the corridor. We can already see the impact it has had in the city center.”

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