Columbia offers loans to improve North Main storefronts

Eau Claire Community Council Executive Director Henry Hopkins, left, and Alvin Hinkle walk past the Shops of North Main Plaza as part of a media tour.
Eau Claire Community Council Executive Director Henry Hopkins, left, and Alvin Hinkle walk past the Shops of North Main Plaza as part of a media tour. The State

City officials and North Columbia business leaders announced Wednesday the first success in an effort to give North Main Street a new look.

E. Marion Enterprises, a financial consulting business, recently completed a $12,475 project to spruce up its storefront at 3612 N. Main St. It was the first of at least 10 businesses in the area that will be making changes.

North Main is a key business corridor leading into the downtown business district, which is undergoing a massive revitalization as South Carolina emerges from the worst recession in a lifetime.

“We’re seeing great momentum,” said Mary Winter Teaster, senior managing director of CBRE|Columbia, a major commercial development firm located on Main Street. “There is a resurgence of people transitioning back downtown.”

Main Street in the past two years has attracted an influx of office, retail and residential projects. And the surrounding corridors – including North Main Street, the Vista and Gervais Street from Main to Harden streets – have begun to see improvements.

The North Main area is getting a boost from the city, which is offering forgivable loans to businesses such as E. Marion Enterprises to make upgrades.

The company added columns to the first level of the two-story house in which it operates, sconce lighting to brighten up the doorway in the evening and an ornamental gate to close a gap between its building and its neighbor’s. The business finished the project with a fresh coat of paint, taking the house “from a bit weary to sleek and clean,” said Gerry Lynn Hall of the city Office of Business Opportunities.

The company laid out $2,495. The remaining $9,980 came from a loan from the North Main Facade Project.

The company is one of 10 recipients of such loans, so far. Operating with $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds from the federal government, the Office of Business Opportunities is encouraging more uptown businesses to apply for these loans. The application deadline is Sept. 30, but $110,000 has already been awarded, Mayor Steve Benjamin said.

Applicants can be given a loan of up to $10,000 and are expected to contribute at least 20 percent of their project’s cost. Grants of up to $1,999 also are available and have no contribution requirement. Neither may be used on buildings’ interiors.

Loans are forgivable and contingent on recipients maintaining their businesses’ facades for at least three years after their projects have been completed.

The group of businesses receiving loans is diverse, ranging from Blue Ribbon Taxi Cab Corp. to In the House Realty. Most projects total between $12,000 and $15,000, and the average loan is around the maximum of $10,000, Hall said.

All of the businesses that have applied for loans thus far have received them, largely due to cooperation with the city throughout the application process, said Hall, the project coordinator.

“We nurse them all the way through,” she said.

The North Main Facade Project is the second phase in a three-part program designed to increase the attractiveness of Columbia for business development. The first phase, focused on the 1200 through 1700 blocks of Main Street, brought nearly $6.1 million in development last year, Benjamin said.

Hall doesn’t expect to match that level of development in the second phase due to differences between the areas.

“The dynamics are different,” Hall said. “Downtown, there are multi-story buildings. When you restore a four-story building, it costs millions. For a one- or two-story building, it costs thousands.”

While the dollar value of development may not be overwhelming, Benjamin and city Councilman Sam Davis said that this project is indicative of big changes in North Columbia.

“This area is now the new frontier in terms of development,” Davis said.

Benjamin noted other recent investments by the city in the area, including nearly 100 new security cameras in the North Main corridor and the recently-passed penny tax, which he said is projected to bring $35 million to invest in infrastructure.

“The North Main Facade Program … is another example of aggressive, ongoing investments that we’re making in this community,” Benjamin said.

Davis expressed hopes for further development beyond the project, saying that it was the best way to attract investors.

“They want to see that we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Davis said. “I can tell you right now, we bit off a big chunk and we intend to chew it, digest it and we’re going to bite off more and we’re going to keep it coming.”