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A Columbia university is spending millions in this poor neighborhood. Here's why

Columbia International University seeks to improve community near its campus

Columbia International University is purchasing six building near its campus and plans to convert the property into more attractive businesses. It's part of an effort to revitalize the north Columbia community.
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Columbia International University is purchasing six building near its campus and plans to convert the property into more attractive businesses. It's part of an effort to revitalize the north Columbia community.

Call it one of Columbia's last frontiers.

Located in north Columbia, just across Interstate 20 along Monticello Road, is the Crane Creek/Denny Terrace area of Columbia and Richland County. It's a mostly rural area of modest family homes that forms a wide "V" between the sprawling growth corridors up Interstates 77 and 26.

But while the Northeast, Harbison and downtown are experiencing historic growth, development has passed by this vast area of wetlands, rolling hills and woods that's a mere five-minute drive from the city's center. What retail businesses exist are shop-worn and rough, dotting a quarter-mile of Monticello Road just north of the interstate. And major residential developers have yet to migrate in.

"We like to think of it as a little hidden gem," said Nicole Rhone, president of the Bookert Heights Neighborhood Association, one of a loose affiliation of neighborhoods clustered around Crane Creek. "We're in the middle between northeast and northwest Columbia, but we don't have the numbers (of residents) to attract new businesses."

That could change soon.

The area's biggest institution — Columbia International University — has invested about $2 million to buy six old or dilapidated retail buildings along Monticello Road, and has its eyes on others. CIU wants to build new retail buildings to serve local residents and draw business from the interstate.

The university also is building a $20 million business and information technologies center on Monticello Road at the entrance to its campus, a facility that could provide program and training space for area residents.

And S.C United Football Club, home of the Major League Soccer developmental team S.C. United Bantams, is putting the final touches on a $3-million, five-field soccer complex in the area, tucked away behind a few light industrial buildings on a frontage road along I-20 just off Monticello.

"It's not often that you have $25 million worth of (private) projects going on in an area like this," said CIU President Mark Smith. "But we feel that the university should lift a community. And that's what we are trying to do here."

Some public spending could follow that private investment.

As part of its penny sales tax roads program, Richland County is mulling a $14 million transportation project that includes major improvements to Monticello Road, other minor improvements on connecting roads and neighborhood sidewalks, said Tony Edwards, assistant director of the county's penny tax program.

The improvements include better streets and sidewalks complete with beatification work, such as landscaping and signage.

The plan could go before County Council as early as next month. If approved by the council, the design and bidding process could take about a year, with construction perhaps completed by 2021.

"Our area has been overlooked," said Rev. Andre Melvin, pastor of Temple Zion Baptist Church on Heyward Brockington Road, a CIU graduate who heads a community input group for the university and advises university president Smith. "So we want to make sure we come together to make our area safe. We see CIU as an ally in that effort."

'It's a horrible sight''

Although the program will not have any street lighting — a priority for the neighbors — it could be added later, Edwards said.

Tax dollars are earmarked for transportation by law and couldn't be used to maintain the lights and pay the bills, he said.

"But we'll do all of the designing with lighting involved" so it can be added later, Edwards said.

The improvements would include sidewalks, a wide central planted area and irrigation system, all intended to make an ugly, uninviting corridor more attractive.

"It's a horrible sight coming into Columbia," said Paul Livingston, who represents Denny Terrance on the County Council. The neighbors' "main concern is just getting that corridor cleaned up. We want to make it attractive for businesses and try to entice some developers.

"But the county can't do it itself," he said. "You have to have other people making that happen."

The city also could have a role to play, said City Council member Sam Davis, who represents the area. The area could be included in the city Walkable 29203 plan, north Columbia's small businesses could benefit from the expertise at CIU's new business center, and the city and county could work together on lighting and other public safety issues.

"There are opportunities for the city and county to work together," he said.

Easy access

Enter CIU.

Smith said the university plans to demolish the six properties already purchased: a wreck of an old Amoco station, a junkyard, a decrepit former drive-in, a combination tire and sandwich shop, and others. Then, CIU officials would hope to attract new retail.

"We're going to talk to some local developers to see how we can move this forward in the days ahead," he said.

Rhone, of the Booker Heights Neighborhood Association, said she hopes the new businesses aren't just gas stations and fast food restaurants catering to interstate travelers.

"We're in need of just your neighborhood businesses — barber shops, coffee shops, a dry cleaner.," she said. "They just aren't available on the north side of I-20."

Rhone also hopes that the area will attract more residential development, to boost the area's population and attract more business.

"We have easy access to downtown, the northeast and northwest," she said. "We can get to anywhere in 20 minutes. And there’s lots of land and opportunity out there."

An exciting time

That access got the attention of S.C. United Football Club Chief Executive Ron Tryon. The club has 4,500 participants from all over the MIdlands and the state.

"It's central to where our players are in the Midlands," he said. "It’s basically at the intersection of all the interstates. Our parents have been very pleased. If you are out of Lexington, Irmo or the Northeast, it's 15 minutes to practice or matches."

The club is christening the facility with seven Bantam matches this summer, each with a different international theme, complete with stadium seating, food and a beer garden. It's called "around the world in seven games," and Tryon said he hopes the location will be convenient for fans as well as players.

'It's an exciting time for the area," he said.

For Smith, the CIU president, the development project is a way for the university, which prepares Christian ministers for service worldwide, to begin that work at home.

"We want to assist this community and bring economic development to Monticello Road," he said.

Davis, the City Council member, said the outreach is welcome.

"They are not isolating themselves on the campus," he said. "They are committed to the off-campus initiative. They seem willing to be part of the community, and that’s a good thing."