April 12, 2014

Retailers gear up for surge of students in Vista, on Main Street

Five years ago, Willie Durkin, owner of the Thirsty Fellow, was about to lose the lease on a bar he had operated in Five Points for nearly two decades. Desperate to find a new location fast, he settled on a building near Colonial Life Arena in downtown Columbia.

Five years ago, Willie Durkin, owner of the Thirsty Fellow, was about to lose the lease on a bar he had operated in Five Points for nearly two decades. Desperate to find a new location fast, he settled on a building near Colonial Life Arena in downtown Columbia.

Five years ago, Willie Durkin was about to lose the lease on a bar he had operated in Five Points for nearly two decades. Desperate to find a new location fast, he settled on a building near Colonial Life Arena in downtown Columbia.

At the time, he asked then-Mayor Bob Coble if the location, surrounded by surface parking lots used by University of South Carolina students during the day and arena patrons at night, might be a good one. The mayor said “yes,” with a knowing smile.

Now, Durkin’s Thirsty Fellow restaurant and bar is located at the epicenter of downtown’s student population boom. Three huge student housing developments totaling about 2,500 beds will be built to the south, east and west of Durkin’s business, each about a block away.

“We’re on an island,” Durkin said last week as workers were measuring two lots east of Thirsty Fellow for an 878-bed complex to be built by USC behind the Carolina Coliseum. “But it’s a very desirable island.”

Within the next three years, the number of residents on Main Street and in the Vista will triple from about 1,100 to around 3,300 when school is in session. Retailers already are gearing up for the influx, which starts in August when the 850-bed Hub at Columbia opens in the 21-story former Palmetto Center on Main Street.

Like the other complexes, Hub offers upscale amenities such as a resort-style pool, sand volleyball court and a gym. But the real draw for many students is the location.

Many have chosen Hub, and will choose the other complexes, over student apartments such as those on Bluff Road – still relatively new – because they don’t have to deal with buses or trying to find the rare parking spot on campus.

“It’s new,” said Sean Williams, a USC freshman from Cleveland, Ohio, who will move from the on-campus Bates House this year to Hub in August with his brother. “Location was the definitely the deciding factor. It’s not too far to anything.”

Walking distance

Downtown businesses are gearing up for that foot traffic:

•  Eleven restaurants have been opened or announced on Main Street in the past few months. Most recently, Al Amir opened in the former LaVecchia’s location across from City Hall last week.
•  New retail outlets are beginning to pop up in the Vista, including the hip national chain Urban Outfitters.
•  And the price of retail and hospitality space is skyrocketing.

The cost of retail space downtown has risen from the mid-teens four years ago to $20 to $25 a foot today, mostly on the promise of those new residents. By contrast, space in Five Points is $12 to $15 a square foot. Trenholm Plaza, which has some of the most expensive in-town space, goes for $30 a square foot.

The rising prices likely will keep out stores such as thrift shops and smoke shops that sometimes pop up around student populations.

Ben Johnson, research and marketing director for CB Richard Ellis commercial real estate firm in Columbia, said much of the interest in the downtown area is from service providers, such as pharmacies and medical services, lured by a surge in students.

The students “absolutely have increased demand for retail space and have caused prices to increase,” he said. “And since there is not any retail space under construction, it is going to create a shortage.”

Thinking young

Main Street and the Vista have been fertile ground for restaurants and bars. But downtown boosters say the youthful bounce in the demographics over the next couple of years could bring some new things to the area.

Craft beers stores, for instance, could make their first appearance, along with more eateries and coffee shops geared toward college budgets.

“It’s not going to help (more upscale restaurants) Cowboys and Hampton Vineyards very much,” Johnson said. “But it’s going to be good for the under $10 lunch, for sure.”

Drip, an independent coffee shop, is located directly across the street from Hub. “They’ll be kicking it,” said Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership, which encourages and guides investment in the central business district.

He noted that the organic, raw food Good Life Café is opening a couple of blocks away.

Also, Kennell said, many existing restaurants around Main Street used to close at 3 p.m. because the area emptied out at 5 p.m. But with 850 new residents expected, places like J. Gumbos will start to stay open later.

“They are all starting to put in outdoor seating and they are all staying open later,” Kennell said.

The right blend

Beyond food, beverage and service businesses, the real test of downtown’s new demographic might be the long-sought blend of national and local shopping.

Popular regional retailer Mast General Store made the leap to Main Street in 2010. Urban Outfitters opened in the Vista last year. But American Apparel’s attempts in both the Vista and Five Points failed.

Will the jump from 1,100 residents in the area to 3,300 start to pull in more shops?

“Probably,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides investment in the Vista and others areas of downtown. “I have already been hearing more from local commercial Realtors and people who work with national retailers. When you have that many people in the area, there is just going to be more market.”

But Delk noted that while the population boost certainly has already led to increased interest, he is uncertain if the chains’ analysts will count them as permanent residents.

“Sometimes the university doesn’t hit those numbers,” he said. “They might not be counted in the normal statistical analysis.”

But Johnson said cold numbers shouldn’t dampen the market.

“It’s not as good as having all high-end residential people living here with high salaries,” he said. “But that’s a lot of people with a lot of energy and a lot of eyes on the street.”

Restaurateur Durkin has already acted on expectations of a spike in business. He’s added a big deck to Thirsty Fellow, and regrets that his desirable island wasn’t a little bigger.

“There’s really not much more we can do,” he said. “But the place is not for sale. That I can assure you.”


The population in the downtown Columbia areas of the Vista and Main Street are expected to triple from about 1,100 residents to more than 3,000 by the fall of 2015. Most of those residents will be University of South Carolina students attracted to new downtown housing projects, including:

An 878-bed complex to be built by USC. The complex, which includes classroom space, dining facilities and a parking garage, will be built along Park Street on two surface parking lots behind the Carolina Coliseum and the new Moore School of Business building

An Edwards Communities development with 700 beds flanking the Palmetto Compress warehouse along Pulaski Street at Greene Street

A 120-bed complex also near the warehouse, called Pulaski Square

An 800-bed complex at the corner of Blossom and Huger streets on property owned by Ben Arnold

The Hub, an 850-bed housing development in the old Palmetto Center high-rise on Main Street, will be home to both students and young professionals

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