Could bathrooms with baby-changing stations improve your day at the river?
Would hammock gardens make Columbia’s waterways more enjoyable for more people?
Could neater parking lots, a performance stage or more public art make the rivers a better place to be?
How to make it easier to enjoy Columbia’s three rivers is the big question. A group of community leaders and residents plans to come up with answers through a new initiative called Do Good Columbia.
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“Who knows what idea will fall out” of this brainstorming process, said Mike Dawson, director of the River Alliance, which focuses on opening up the city’s rivers for recreation and residential development. “It’s not about the amount of money you throw at it. It’s the amount of energy you put into it.”
The Broad, Saluda and Congaree rivers are a central element of Columbia’s identity as a city, Dawson said.
A key stumbling block is that there’s limited access. The city has yet to extend the Three Rivers Greenway on Columbia’s side of the Congaree between the Gervais Street and Blossom Street bridges. North and south of the bridges, the greenway, including Riverfront Park, provides good views and room to walk. Still, downtown riverfront restaurants and shops along the Congaree don’t exist. Canoe and kayak put-ins are limited, too.
So what can be done for now?
Community conversations are increasingly considering how the public can better access and enjoy the rivers. It’s a quality of life issue, community leaders say.
“I think it’s one of the huge things that draws people to the area,” Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said. “It’s part of our unique identity here. It’s the reason the city of Columbia is where it is. ... And it’s going to be a huge part of our future.”
Now’s a perfect time to act on the rivers, many in Columbia are saying, to decide what can be done now. Momentum is high on the water:
▪ Waves of residents have moved or are about to move toward the water with the recent Tremont and Flow developments in Cayce and West Columbia, the construction of the Brookland development in West Columbia and the Canalside expansion in Columbia.
▪ Activities like river tubing and kayaking and the annual Gervais Street Bridge dinner are gaining popularity.
▪ The Three Rivers Greenway is being expanded along the Saluda near the Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens.
▪ An innovative laser art display, “Southern Lights,” is being installed over the Congaree near downtown.
To capitalize on that momentum, Richland Library is hosting a two-and-a-half-day Do Good Columbia workshop next month to zero in on who uses the rivers – or could use them – and what those people are looking for in their experiences.
“We are guilty of allowing people to make decisions for us without being a part of the process,” said library director Melanie Huggins, who has spearheaded the Do Good Columbia initiative. “This work of making our rivers safe and accessible and enjoyable and a real attraction is important to us. ... How can we do it with a better understanding of people who use them?”
For Leah Wade, who went running at the downtown Riverfront Park along the Columbia Canal one afternoon last week, more water fountains along the trail would improve her river experience, she said. Scotty and Lela Taylor hoped for a better way to get directly to the river water. And for Todd Overcash, who fished with a friend on the riverbanks at the same park, less trash in the river would do the trick.
“I would enjoy having more benches,” said Martha Scheiblich, who took frequent breaks to sit as she walked along the canal last week. “The benches that are here are nice. But more of them would be nicer.”
During Do Good Columbia’s workshop weekend, teams of already-selected community members will work with advisers – including Dawson and Stangler – from Columbia’s environmental, business, arts, government and other sectors. More than 140 people applied to participate in the workshop, and about 60 were selected.
The teams will consider how specific people, such as mothers or outdoorsmen or downtown professionals, interact with specific points of the rivers, such as the Rosewood boat landing or Riverfront Park.
Each team will pitch a project idea to a panel of judges, who will select at least one project to actually take shape in the next year, with funding from the Knight Foundation through the Central Carolina Community Foundation and from private donors.
That brainstorming process could lay the groundwork not only for community leaders to implement other projects on the river, but for the city to tackle other hot-topic issues, such as food insecurity, Huggins said.
“We’re hoping that the people in the room that have the power and ability to make positive change around this topic of river access get inspired by these ideas – that they just go do them or they start thinking a different way,” Huggins said.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.