Warren Bolton

August 3, 2014

Bolton: Is Columbia, SC about to explode?

IS COLUMBIA about to explode? I mean really, really explode economically, socially and culturally?

IS COLUMBIA about to explode? I mean really, really explode economically, socially and culturally?

It’s a question well worth pondering given the mammoth public investment projects on tap for our capital city as well as the steady drum beat of announcements for new hotels, apartments and student housing as well as restaurants.

But it’s also a question that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves, in part because of unproductive and unwelcome distractions that range from infighting on City Council to a council majority using strong-arm tactics to push major projects through to the mayor’s being a prominent figure (although not charged or on trial) in a federal corruption trial.

Citizens understandably have been concerned about those matters, some of which hurt public trust and led me to write a couple months ago that all is not well in our capital city.

While there are still concerns, let me now offer this: All is not wrong in our capital city either; as a matter of fact, quite a few things are going quite well. So much so, the city is well-positioned for dynamic growth and could experience one of the greatest — if not the greatest — booms it has ever had.

Obviously, nothing is a sure thing, and there are reasonable questions about how successful some proposed projects will be, particularly those that call for heavy government investment. But even if the announced development and that which is underway doesn’t perform like gangbusters, chances are good Columbia is in for great change.

We’ve heard plenty about how the proposed Bull Street development and the accompanying baseball stadium could transform the Midlands. And how a vastly improved bus system as well as new roads, sidewalks and other projects paid for by the transportation sales tax can transform the transportation network and bolster the local economy.

Will the impact truly be in the billions? Will there be tens of thousands of new jobs? Is it all wishful thinking?

I know some believe Bull Street and minor league baseball could be big busts. Some want them to fail. I’m not in that group. My concern is that Columbia has committed too much in public dollars. If the development is such a great investment, the developer and the baseball team should have been willing to put up more of their own money. I also have a problem with the City Council’s rush to approve these projects.

That said, I’m pulling for my hometown to blossom into an attractive metropolitan city that not only remains a great place for current residents and businesses but becomes a magnet for new residents, visitors and businesses.

The chances of that happening are getting better every day, and it’s not simply because of the mega-projects that carry huge public investments. Plenty of other pieces falling into place worth getting excited about.

Here are some:

•  A student housing complex called The Hub opens this month. Located in the 21-story former Palmetto Center along Main Street, it boasts 850 beds and will be a big boost to the already-resurgent downtown.
•  The Vista is about to get its first boutique hotel, a five-story, 108-room Aloft at the corner of Lady and Lincoln streets. Guess what will be across the street? A six-story Hyatt Place hotel, which is under construction.
•  A 280-unit apartment complex and a mixed-use development — including a free-standing hotel — are planned for the former Kline Iron and Steel Co. site at the corner of Gervais and Huger streets.
•  A five-story development called Main Street Flats that could include 100 or more apartments or condominiums is being considered for the corner of North Main and Confederate Avenue.
•  A private student housing project planned along Assembly, Pendleton and Park streets will feature 848 beds, private parking and street-level retail. It will consist of two glass-covered towers 12-stories high.
•  An 878-bed student complex is being built by USC and Holder Properties behind the Carolina Coliseum.

Let’s not forget the robust activity of the University of South Carolina — the impressive new business school and other construction are progressing. And who yet knows what Innovista might bring? Also, don’t underestimate the impact of the positive image the university is receiving — and by virtue the city — thanks to a top-ranked business school and highly touted sports programs.

There are more apartments and student housing I could mention, as well as the new addition to the State Museum. Bottom line: A lot of good things are happening.

I know there’s work to be done, particularly when it comes to how people feel about City Council’s stewardship. And we need to hold those leaders accountable. But give Columbia officials credit for helping put the city in this posture, and recognize the hard work of the business community and others who continue to encourage new enterprise and promote our capital city.

If things go as well as they could, we might be in for another slogan change: Columbia, the exploding city.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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