It was shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve 1989 and Martha Fowler had just finished shooting a segment for SCETV at City Hall on Main Street.
As she walked down Main to her car to drive to the fireworks display at Finlay Park, there wasn’t another soul in sight. Suddenly, there was a tap on her shoulder. It was a police officer – longtime Columbia Police Chief Charles Austin.
“He told me I shouldn’t be walking alone at that time of night,” she said. “And it was New Year’s Eve!”
Today, the scene on Main Street on New Year’s Eve is stunningly different. Tens of thousands of people gather there for Famously Hot New Year’s, a free concert and party featuring acts like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, the Wallflowers with Jacob Dylan, Kool and the Gang and Lauryn Hill – topped off by a massive fireworks displays over the State House.
What a difference three decades can make. Main Street is now a thriving residential, retail, and entertainment area, attracting people from sunrise to well after dark.
During the past week, The State has examined the changes on Main Street and the affect they have had on residents, guests and businesses. As part of the coverage, we gathered six of Main Street’s stakeholders to talk about the changes, threats to growth, and what could be next.
They six were:
▪ Fowler, whose family has owned buildings on Main Street since shortly after Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops burned much of the area to the ground in 1865;
▪ Thomasena Reynolds, who has operated His and Her’s Tailoring on or around Main Streetsince 1972;
▪ Tom Prioreschi, who pioneered turning old Main Street buildings into apartments through his Capitol Places real estate company;
▪ Vaughn Granger, who has owned Granger Owings Classic Clothiers on Main for 40 years;
▪ Ron Swinson, a Main Street developer who is renovating the Arcade mall; and,
▪ Matt Kennell, president and CEO of Center City Partnership, which encourages and guides investment in the Central Business District.
Main Street, then known as Richardson Street, began as the retail and business hub of Columbia when South Carolina’s capital was founded in 1786. And it’s history has been a series of ups and downs ever since.
It was burned by Sherman’s troops; abandoned by the big interstate banks in the 1970s; and emptied when the big department stores moved to the suburbs in the 1980s and ‘90s. And now, after a series of small steps, it has exploded into a thriving corridor of coffee shops, restaurants, specialty shops and apartments.
“It’s the little engine that could,” Fowler said.
Steps to a new Main Street
Panelists pointed to several milestones that brought the street from empty storefronts and wig shops to the hipster haven it is today.
“It wasn’t one thing,” said Reynolds. “It was a lot of things in a row.”
Granger said the beginning of the modern Main Street can be traced to the construction of the IBM building, where his shop is located in the 1300 block of Main, and the Palmetto Center, home to today’s Marriott Hotel, in the 1980s by developer Ed Bagwell at the behest of then-Mayor Kirkman Finlay.
“They just went up and down Main building buildings,” he said.
Then in 1998, the Columbia Museum of Art opened on the site of the old Macy’s department store between Hampton and Taylor streets.
“It transformed Main into an arts and culture hub,” Fowler said.
That caused New York native Prioreschi to buy his first building on Main Street – the empty Kress Building across from the art museum. He converted it into 31 apartments and a retail space that now houses Cowboy’s Brazilian Steakhouse.
“I thought, ‘How could anyone fail with an art museum across the street?’” he said.
Today, Prioreschi’s Capitol Places has about 250 apartments and condos in eight buildings on Main Street.
Next came a controversial streetscaping program that fixed utilities and beautified the street from Gervais Street to Blanding Street. The five-year project that began in 2003 partially blocked entrances to some existing Main Street businesses, but the effort eventually spurred new investment.
“It just took way too long,” Kennell said.
One of the most significant of those investments was North Carolina-based retailer Mast General Store, which in 2011 converted the old Lourie’s menswear building into one of the company’s popular folksy-trendy stores. The move demonstrated that a national retailer would take a chance on Main Street and gave people who might not have ever wandered onto Main a reason to go.
“I think it is the most important thing on the list,” Prioreschi said.
But others point to more recent developments – particularly the Soda City Market, which brings hundreds of people to Main Street on Saturday mornings, and the conversion of the 21-story Palmetto Center into the Hub student housing complex.
“That was huge,” Swinson said of the Hub. “That dropped 850 pedestrians right on Main.”
And for nearly two decades, the City Center Partnership has been the point for making improvements to the Main Street from beautification, to marketing to the highly visible “yellow shirt” civilian patrol group.
“Nobody cared, but Matt kept persisting,” Prioreschi said.
More work to be done
Today, Main Street has boutiques, specialty shops, regular festivals and events, hip coffee shops and restaurants and bars of all description.
But, the panelists said, there is still work to do.
▪ The streetscaping project needs to be extended from the 1700 block to Elmwood Avenue.
“Wherever the city has done streetscaping, there has been investment,” Kennell said.
▪ More residential development
“Sooner or later adults need to start living on Main Street,” Granger said.
▪ Convince leaders in outlying neighborhoods that public investment in Main Street, particularly completing the streetscaping project, is a good idea.
“There is a 20-to-1 return on investment,” Kennell said. “We need to let the naysayers know that that provides police officers, firefighters and utilities” for the whole city
▪ Finding ways to unite Main Street and the Vista.
“That six-lane highway needs to go back to two lanes,” said Fowler, referring to Assembly Street, which divides the two districts.”
▪ Improve parking
▪ And make Main Street more people friendly
“We need to do more things like the yarn bombing,” said Kennell, referring to an event last year in which the 1500 block of Main was decorated with art made out of yarn. “More places for kids to play. And maybe some fun furniture so hipsters can just hang out and eat their avocado toast.”
But for Reynolds, of His and Her’s Tailoring, the journey Main Street has taken already is nothing short of amazing.
“I was here when it was dying,” she said. “And now it’s nice.”
Added Fowler: “And it’s pretty. It’s nice to have a little pretty down here.”
Meet the panelists
Martha Fowler, 66, partner CLM Properties
Owns three building on Main Street. Her grandfather built five Main Street buildings shortly after the Civil War.
Thomasena Reynolds, 74
Has owned His and Her’s Tailoring Shop on and around Main Street since 1972. It is now in the Arcade mall
Tom Prioreschi, 78
Owns of Capitol Places residential management firm which has about 250 apartments on Main Street.
Vaughn Granger, 63
Owns Granger Owings Classic Clothiers on Main Street
Ron Swinson, 62
A developer and owner of the Arcade mall
Matt Kennell, 55
President and CEO of Center City Partnership, which encourages and guides investment in the central business district.