As The State Media Co. this week honors its newest class of 20 young local leaders, we met with several of last year’s honorees to talk about the Midlands’ future.
Like this year’s class, the eight honorees we interviewed from the 2016 class are passionate about their community and the amenities it offers. They also believe the Midlands can become even better for young people, families, retirees, businesses and industries. Here’s a look at five of their ideas.
More airline flight options
Neal Truslow, 33, an attorney with Truslow and Truslow, likes to tell an old joke about Columbia:
“The worst thing about dying in Columbia is you have to connect through Atlanta or Charlotte to get to your final destination,” he said.
Truslow wants to see more discount carriers at Columbia Metropolitan Airport and more direct connections to middle-sized cities like Nashville, where the SEC basketball tournament was held earlier this month.
“We’re doing a great job of marketing downtown, Main Street, North Main,” he said. “We need to make it easier to bring folks in from other cities. If we expand our reach, Columbia would be more marketable for people to come for a long weekend, and people would spread the word about Columbia a little better and more people would be enticed to come here.”
Marvin Robinson, 40, vice president and business banker with Wells Fargo, added that to sustain those flights and carriers, the various governments, chambers of commerce, business leaders and others need to work together.
“There needs to be better cooperation between counties and selected leadership in the community,” said Robinson, who noted that Upstate entities worked in tandem to land discount carrier Southwest Airlines, unlike the Midlands, which had a disjointed presentation and lost the bid.
“Everybody up there came together,” he said.
Airlines serving Columbia Metropolitan Airport offer 35 non-stop flights a day to nine major cities, including Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia, according to the airport. The airport’s executive director, Dan Mann, told The State earlier this year that officials plan to reach out to low-fare airlines Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier Airlines to encourage them to begin service locally.
In 2016, the airport recorded its fifth consecutive year of passenger growth, the first in its history.
Reduce/eliminate railroad delays
About the only good thing people had to say about the railroad tracks crisscrossing downtown Columbia is that you have a built-in excuse for being late.
Robinson said the city should work to relocate the railroad tracks downtown and turn the rights of way into greenways, creating attractive corridors downtown for hiking and biking.
“If you want to keep the young professionals in town, that’s the kind of things that they want,” he said. “I know it’s a large task. But what gets the railroad companies is reduced liability. If you can reduce crossings and turn that into greenspace, I think you could get the right parties at the table.”
But he added: “Ideas are great, but if you don’t have the money to pay for them, they are just ideas.”
Andy Folsom, 36, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina assistant vice president of strategic investment and acquisitions, also had aesthetic issues with the railroads.
“I agree with Marvin from a transportation standpoint. Something needs to be looked at to move them out of the downtown traffic flow. But beyond moving them, if we can do something with the aesthetics of them it would improve the impression people have of our city.”
The trestle crossing Gervais Street near Harden Street is a good example, he said.
“It’s an eyesore,” he said. “Just paint it.”
This year, the Columbia City Council approved spending nearly $600,000 to help pay for a $2 million update of a downtown rail traffic study. Among the long-considered options for improving the problem of train tracks intersecting busy downtown roads are: consolidating some of the rail lines that carry CSX and Norfolk Southern trains; closing some of the street-level railroad crossings on Assembly Street and in the nearby mill village neighborhoods; and elevating some rails to bridges over busy streets.
Market Columbia better
There’s an old adage that Columbia is two hours away from where you really want to be. Erin Johnson, who grew up 1.5 hours up the road in Charlotte, thinks that today, that adage needs to be flipped.
“Those places are also two hours from us,” she said.
Johnson, 40, is vice president for community investment with the Central Carolina Community Foundation. She noted Columbia’s new restaurants, a growing Vista, a resurgent Main Street and an emerging North Main Street.
Add those to standing draws like the zoo, the State Museum, USC athletics and EdVenture, as well as new attractions like the Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball team, and you have a city worth bragging on.
“My friends back home know about the zoo, but not much else,” she said. “We’re doing a good job competing with other aspirational cities in the Southeast, but we’re doing a terrible job of telling people that.”
Jarrett Coco, 40, an attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, said the Midlands also needs to do a better job of promoting arts.
The city it has a vibrant arts scene, including about a dozen galleries, three dance companies, three theater companies, an art museum and a contemporary arts center. And that is outside of all the arts produced, curated and exhibited at the University of South Carolina.
“But the over-arching mentality is that the arts aren’t necessarily good for the economy, when if fact they are,” he said, pointing to a city arts and economic impact study. But it can be indirect.
“Asheville has a good arts scene, and everybody knows that,” he added. “I would like to see us showcase our arts a little bit more.”
Further develop the river
The city’s three rivers – the Congaree, the Saluda and the Broad – have long been deemed the Midlands’ hidden treasures. The Three Rivers Greenway has opened up much of the riverfront, but Johnson and others would like to see development taken to the next level.
“We all know there is something about a living body of water,” she said. “ I know we have the riverwalk; but it’s not for everybody. I don’t want to hike to get to it. I would like to see a few restaurants. It would be great to have a nice little bistro down there.”
“There are very few places where you can have a meal or a drink by the river,” he said. “I think the best development would have residential and commercial applications.”
Johnson, who has two small children, would also like to see more accessible parks.
“It’s hard to get them down to the river walk,” she said
Spann Laffitte, 40, vice president of sales for Delta Dental of South Carolina, thinks that developing the rivers is a way to put Columbia on the tourism map.
“Everyone has heard of the Riverwalk in San Antonio,” he said. “It pales in comparison to the beauty we have on our river front. If we could bring restaurants and amphitheaters and parks to further enhance that, it would truly help Columbia establish itself as a destination. Look at the River Bend festival in Chattanooga (Tennessee) and what they have done their river front.”
Enhance economic development
In addition to attracting visitors, many of those interviewed said that keeping recent college graduates and young professionals in Columbia is another key to continuing Columbia’s and the Midlands’ momentum.
“What a solid foundation we’ve got in how we’ve revitalized Columbia’s core,” Laffitte said. “But we need to generate industry that will bring in jobs parallel with the university’s growth.”
Katherine Swartz Hilton, 38, is Columbia College’s director of the Center for Leadership and co-director of the college’s McNair Center for Entrepreneurism.
She said that while landing “whales” – big manufacturing plants like the Volvo plant being built in Berkeley County or a Jushi fiberglass plant planned in Richland County – they are few and far between. Building small businesses and start-ups has to be done as well.
“It’s been about 20 years since Richland County has had a deal of that size,” said Swartz Hilton, referring to the Jushi plant that eventually is supposed to employ more than 800 people. “In tandem you need to funnel resources to start-ups, micro-businesses and small businesses. Those are the companies that are firing up job creation across the country.”
The reason industrial recruitment has been difficult in the Midlands, several of those interviewed said, is the cost of doing business here, particularly in Columbia.
Joe Walker, 35, owns 23 Marco’s Pizza restaurants in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi; three Carolina Mattress and Furniture stores in Columbia and Lexington; and has opened an Orange Theory Fitness store in Columbia and intends to open four more this year in the Midlands.
Of all the places where he operates business, he said the city of Columbia is the most expensive and difficult because of the cost of taxes and fees. He describes it as “abrasive.”
“The city of Columbia creates in my mind creates friction when it comes to opening new businesses, growing new businesses or to simply conduct business in existing locations... We need to have the opportunity to create a fundamentally sound, economically stable environment to live and operate in.”
20 under 40
The State this year’s 20 under 40 class of young leaders in a special section in Sunday’s editions. On Wednesday, the 20 professionals will be honored at a reception at the Capital City Club.