If several feet of water couldn’t take Forest Lake Gardens out of business, it appears a bank might do it.
Joseph McDougall’s 12-year old Forest Acres produce and garden store has been ordered by its landlord, First Citizens Bank, to pack up and leave its site near the corner of Trenholm Road and Forest Drive by the end of the month — next Saturday.
McDougall received a letter dated Oct. 20 saying that in light of the floodplain property being “particularly hard hit” by recent floods, the landlord “has assessed the damage and has determined that it is not practical (or, under the applicable construction guidelines and ordinances, possible) to restore or replace the affected improvements.”
“I think the neighborhood is going to be sad or irritated if Joseph is shut down,” said Sally Huguley, a loyal customer who said she appreciates the colorful, eclectic character of McDougall’s store. “I like to go to a local business. ... I just don’t want to go to the big box stores, and if he closes down, at least in the Forest Acres area, that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
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It didn’t come as much surprise to McDougall that the bank, which merged its North Carolina and South Carolina corporations earlier this year, would tell him to move out after the flood. He was told several months ago that his lease might not be renewed, McDougall said.
“I don’t have any fear” in the face of being shut down, McDougall said. “I’m not a victim, by no means. I don’t feel like a victim, because I can start all over. ... This was an opportunity for me.”
“Once the wheel starts turning, you can’t stop it,” McDougall said. “What I learned from Rush, a band I like — I’m studying a lot of my music — he says in ‘Tom Sawyer’ that changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”
First Citizens and the city of Forest Acres have had ongoing negotiations about the future of the property for about a year and a half, said Angela English, a Columbia spokeswoman for the bank. English said she did not know what the space might look like in the future, but McDougall said he had been told a green space and a new road had been discussed.
“We sincerely empathize with Mr. McDougall and the entire Forest Acres community” in the aftermath of the flood, English said. “We’ve been working and will continue to work with him on some options for his business.”
Forest Lake Gardens reopened about a week and a half after floodwaters reached above the door frame of the building, leaving a muddy water line on a painting of Bob Marley above McDougall’s office. The painting is the only thing at the store that’s not for sale, McDougall said – “That and my soul.”
McDougall was determined to open the store back up before the bank could tell him to get out, he said, and he’s already done $10,000 worth of business in the week since reopening.
Tucked behind the First Citizens at the corner of Trenholm Road and Forest Drive, across the street from the Forest Acres Police Department, Forest Lake Gardens was well-stocked this week with warmly colored mums and pumpkins and other seasonal flowers and produce. A pair of McDougall’s well-known Big Foot statues — including a hot pink one, which have always sold well, McDougall said — sat along the sidewalk at the edge of the road.
“You were selling stuff before I could get out of my driveway,” Forest Acres resident Wilma Bjontegard told McDougall on Thursday. She had come to buy potting soil. “I admired how hard he worked to get it back together. ... I wouldn’t want to lose it.”
More than 1,200 people had signed an online petition by Thursday afternoon asking First Citizens to save Forest Lake Gardens. Meanwhile, McDougall collected a list of email addresses from customers so he could let them know when and where he reopens his business.
He would like to stay put, but he’s prepared to move. McDougall said he owns property on Two Notch Road, where he expects he can reopen.
“We’ll come to you,” a woman told him Thursday as she walked to her car with a potted plant.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.