October 19, 2013

High-profile crime creates dilemma for Five Points businesses

How Five Points merchants respond to the violence crisis gripping the funky urban village could help shape its future – and their own, experts said.

How Five Points merchants respond to the violence crisis gripping the funky urban village could help shape its future – and their own, experts said.

They already are off to a good start, talking with each other and law enforcement about the issues and solutions, some experts say.

“The key is just building a strong sense of community and a strong coalition among the businesses,” said Kelly Davis, public relations director for Riggs Partners. “Everyone has the same goal: to grow and maintain a successful business in the Five Point area.”

Five Points has endured a string of violent crime over the past three years – from the severe beating of an 18-year-old by a group of young men to the random shooting last week of a college freshman who was left paralyzed.

The area received a hit to its reputation last week when USC president Harris Pastides said he no longer considers Five Points safe after midnight. Police and government leaders are considering responses, from closing portions of streets to car traffic during weekend nights to making bars close at 2 a.m.

A Five Points merchants’ group said Friday that it is “adamantly opposed to any street closures and mandatory 2 a.m. bar closings,” adding that the real issue is gang violence.

The stakes are high. The area has been a magnet for college students and downtown residents for decades.

They shop at the stores, eat at the restaurants and go to the bars. And the area in recent years has attracted some national and regional retailers, including Starbucks, Walgreens, Copper Penny, Waffle House and Cookout. The area was once in the running for Columbia’s first Apple store.

But if Five Points wants to continue to grow – boosting property values in the surrounding neighborhoods – merchants will have to keep attracting consumers, experts said.

Ways to do that include:

Open lines of communication. Merchants must reinforce the message that they appreciate customers continuing to patronize their businesses and ask for feedback about what customers want – both in person and via social media.

“If ever there were a time for good two-way communications, now is it,” Davis said.

Realize they are not alone. Merchants already are getting a boost this weekend from partners outside the immediate area.

Post No Bills, which represents the S.C. State Fair, partnered with businesses in Five Points.

Customers who spend $25 or more at Five Points businesses through Sunday can bring their receipts to the fair for two free admission tickets, said Stephanie Owens, a Post No Bills account executive.

“We want to support our neighbors through a challenging time,” she said. “We’re really hoping this will be a good push for them. I’m sure that they’ll pull through this.”

Take the next steps. Merchants need to continue to advocate for the area in the weeks ahead, Davis said. That incudes attending City Council meetings, talking with state lawmakers and making sure policy changes are made.

The Five Points area is not short on advocates, many of whom have been doing business in Columbia for decades.

Some changes already are being made.

Police visibility is up with a new police substation and more plainclothes and uniformed cops walking the beat and stopping in businesses to chat with merchants. More than 200 security cameras pervade the district.

But some merchants are frustrated by lack of action.

“The police have all the laws they need to enforce,” said Duncan MacRae, owner of Yesterday’s restaurant. “They need to enforce the curfew (on minors). They need to enforce the loitering. They need to enforce the no alcohol on the street. They need to put lights in the light poles around Five Points.”

MacRae said he’s been asking for the lights for six years, taking his request to the mayor and City Council – all to no avail.

“Every time I get some platitude about ‘Well, we can do it,’ but it hasn’t been done,” MacRae said.

Many of the solutions are out of the merchants’ hands, such as reforming how the judicial system deals with repeat violent offenders – an issue that has gotten a lot of attention from government officials after an arrest in connection with last weekend’s shooting. The suspect had avoided long sentences in Richland County courtrooms on two burglary charges in recent years.

Debbie McDaniel, a Five Points shop owner who has been critical of how officers police the area, said people who come to the district and “act like gang-banging thugs” should be treated as such.

“Two words: catch and release,” she said. “They catch ’em and release ’em. That’s the problem.”

Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed.

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