The barber shop that Doug Comalander has run for nearly 60 years gives him a front-row seat to changes that growth is making in Chapin.
“I like Chapin the way it was, but I don’t get upset,” said Comalander, 82. “I know you can’t stop progress.”
Chapin is becoming known for more that its 37-year-old Labor Day festival that organizers estimate typically attracts up to 20,000 visitors, as well as a dozen candidates looking for votes.
Homes and stores are sprouting on the pastures that Comalander tended as a teenager in a community once an insular enclave but now an increasingly popular place for young families and retirees to settle.
The community, the business and political hub of the 40-square-mile northern tip of Lexington County, is set to become a hot spot for new development.
Town officials forecast the largest growth spurt in 30 years since Timberlake and other neighborhoods sprouted on the Lake Murray peninsula to its south.
County officials will open a center for technology firms this fall that could employ up to 1,000 people eventually. Meanwhile, builders are preparing to open new neighborhoods that could be home to another 1,400 families over the next decade.
Those projects are leading town officials prepare a major sewage expansion to handle much more than the 4,000 homes and businesses now served.
Planners predict that an additional 2,000 connections will be needed in five years, a third of them for the technology hub and the remainder for homes. That expansion will cost $12.2 million, according to preliminary estimates.
Four factors are spurring the boom, builders and officials say:
▪ Convenient access to I-26 to travel to jobs not in downtown Columbia but also to state agencies in the Harbison area and communities such as Newberry.
▪ Schools ranked among the best in South Carolina.
▪ Resort-style living at the lake, with full-time residents as well as second homes.
▪ A sense of small-town neighborliness.
“The market in Chapin is all about family,” home builder Stewart Mungo said.
SMALL TOWN, BIG CLOUT
Chapin’s role as the commercial center and utility provider gives the town more influence than its population of 1,500 spread over nearly two square miles suggests.
“It plays much bigger than its size,” said George Duke, who lives in the Timberlake neighborhood on the lake eight miles south of town.
What happens in Chapin affects two dozen neighborhoods around it, said Duke, who recently joined the Town Planning Commission.
Chapin is the hub of a 10-mile radius with a population of 58,000 spread across four counties, according to the Central Midlands Council of Governments.
The community’s 29036 ZIP code – 30 miles from downtown Columbia – is home to an estimated 21,000 persons today, 2,000 more than the 2010 census count of 19,000. The population is expected to be around 23,500 in 2020.
While largely residential, the area is home to two major Midlands employers that keep low profiles – hunting and fishing equipment distributor Ellett Brothers and industrial information and background screening company GIS.
Chapin also is the last major stop for supplies for those headed to nearby Dreher Island State Park on the lake for swimming, camping and fishing.
SCHOOLS READY, ROADS NOT
Home sales in the Chapin area are on the upswing, with 291 sold through July for a total of $68.2 million, real estate agents say.
Prices and residences sold are up about 15 percent over a year ago, according to Brent Downing of Century 21.
Mungo’s company has three neighborhoods near the town under way, with a fourth planned, that are designed for all age groups.
“There’s something for every phase of life, where multi-generational people can live together,” he said.
Lexington-Richland 5 school officials are ready for growth.
Chapin High School’s enrollment is slightly more than 1,300 of the 1,700 students that a recent expansion of classrooms is designed to handle.
The school graduated 288 last spring, more than 10 times the class in 1952 that included barber Comalander when the census put the town’s population at 327.
A 70-acre recreation complex is set to open by Dec. 31 on Eptings Camp Road, the second in the area. Crooked Creek Park has been in operation since 1994.
But road congestion promises to persist.
About 16,500 vehicles travel daily on Columbia Avenue and U.S. 76, thoroughfares that intersect near a railroad crossing in the center of town, according to state traffic counts. Backups during rush hours as well as when students arrive and leave schools are common.
Traffic is the top concern in a survey of 595 area residents this summer.
It’s likely to remain a hassle even as state transportation officials prepare to undertake a long-planned widening of Columbia Avenue from I-26 to the center of town. And town leaders talk about a local bypass mainly for motorists who live on the lake south of town.
“Plans to improve things are moving forward, but I don’t know if we can wait a few years,” said former fire chief Bob Shealy, 82.
For long-time residents, congestion already is overwhelming. “The traffic is frightening,” said Billy Rauch, an 85-year-old retiree.
Coping with traffic will remain a problem but development guidelines undergoing an update show the community is primed to deal with the influx of homes and businesses expected, local civic leaders said.
“There will be some growing pains here and there,” said Scott MacFarland, a retired SCANA executive who is head of the local Chamber of Commerce. “Aside from traffic, everything else can be handled.”
Mayor Skip Wilson echoes that assessment.
“Our ultimate goal is to manage this growth in a controlled manner so that we maintain our small-town atmosphere and charm,” he said. “Our fear is the conditions will get worse before they improve if state officials don’t act quickly to provide reliable and consistent funding to address our road infrastructure.”
For some residents, more traffic is a plus.
A steady increase in cars passing by during neighborhood walks during the past six years convinced Jerry Caldwell to open a coffee and book store in the town in April.
“The timing was right,” the former corporate aerospace sales executive said.
That sentiment is echoed by Jason McDowell, who gave up his chemical sales job to become co-owner of a local branch of J Peters Grill a year ago.
“We understood this is a market on the rise,” he said. “Our success is at the upper end of our expectations.”
Some area residents appreciate the increasing variety of sites for shopping and entertainment that eliminates the 25-mile round trip – about 10 miles longer for those who live on the lake – to the Harbison area.
“We appreciate the opportunity to shop for more things locally,” said Gary Schmedding, a 77-year-old retired broadcast executive who settled in the area 15 years ago.
While dining choices are growing to 25, other businesses remain static. Chapin is home to 240 firms today, slightly less than three years ago, town officials say.
But the Publix supermarket being built is the talk of the town since it promises new choices in a market analysts describe as upscale.
The changes are dramatic for residents who remember when lumber mills and general stores were common well into the 1900s when Chapin was home to a few hundred people outnumbered significantly by trees.
“Everything is changing up here,” former fire chief Shealy said. “It’s popping.”
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
Five building blocks that set Chapin on the path from quiet small town to growing suburb:
1985: Development of Timberlake area led to creation of town sewer network a few years afterward. Town population was about 350 then.
1987: Town adopts planning and zoning standards, now being updated.
1994: Crooked Creek Park opens as a center for recreation and sports.
1999: Police force expands from part- to full-time operation.
2013: Much larger Town Hall with community center opens on 25-acre site, with work under way to surround it with a park.
Calling attention to Chapin
For many Midlands residents, Joe and Gladys Grimaud are the voices of Chapin.
The couple are known for their banter in radio ads promoting the family furniture store at the town’s entrance off I-26.
“What you hear on the radio is pretty much the way they are,” said son Keith, who manages the store. Chapin Furniture recently doubled in size and brought Chapin its first escalator in a remodel.
New hand at Town Hall’s helm
Skip Wilson imposed a new style of command instead of camaraderie after being elected Chapin’s first new mayor in 32 years in 2013.
His changes stirred conflict and legal challenges from other town leaders that persist.
But Wilson has put his stamp on the community in reshaping town operations to focus more on planning and use of technology.
More than 3 Rs
Chapin High principal Akil Ross promotes the six Rs as part of keeping the school among the best in South Carolina.
In his motto of We aRe Chapin, “the R stands for Ready to learn, Respectful to others, Responsible to ourselves, Rigor in teaching, Relevance in learning and meaningful Relationships among students, faculty and staff,” he says.
It’s a message he stresses on social media and at school assemblies.
Johnny Jeffcoat lives near Irmo but is an integral part of Chapin
For 20 years, the veteran Lexington County Councilman has made sure Chapin’s voice is heard in representation of the northern tip of the 758-square-mile county.
As he retires from politics, one legacy will be the new county-developed technology hub expected to bring in jobs and newcomers to Chapin.
IF YOU GO
What: Chapin’s Labor Day Festival
When: All day Monday
What to expect: The parade starts at 9:30 a.m.; often heavy with politicians, it’s the Midlands’ official kickoff to election season. There’s also a classic car show, a children’s carnival area, an annual sale at the library, a model train exhibit, live music, vendors and food.
A little extra: A street party starts at 7 p.m. Sunday on Beaufort Street with a live band.