‘Midlands Reality Check’ aims to plan for growth by choice not chance

Three hundred leaders are going to gather in Columbia in the fall to map out a path for the region’s future that will need to accommodate thousands more houses, dozens more schools and 450,000 new people.

Major changes are coming to the area over the next 30 years, top political, business, planning and professional leaders said Thursday. While the changes could bring prosperity, without planning, they could leave behind chaos, leaders said.

By 2040, the local region, with its 450,000 new residents, will need 174,000 new housing units and schools to accommodate 93,000 additional K-12 students, according to the Urban Land Institute South Carolina, a land use leadership and community creating non-profit group with global ties.

Those increases will bring 14 new high schools, 22 new middle schools and 30 new elementary schools to the eight-county region, officials said, that includes Lexington, Richland, Kershaw, Fairfield, Newberry, Saluda, Sumter and Calhoun.

In October, the 300 regional leaders will meet at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in what the leaders say is an unprecedented collaborative effort, to plot out bucket-list issues such as “how should we grow” and “where should we grow.”

An approximate $300,000 budget has been created for the project that will cover planning and advertising for the event, publication of a report due one month after the summit and implementation of the vision that comes out of the summit.

“We have to have a regional vision as to where folks are going to live, where they’re going to work, play and visit, and we’ve got to start planning now – right now,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, one of the local leaders at the Thursday announcement.

The coming new growth also will create more than 160,000 new jobs, require roughly 70 million additional gallons of water per household, per day and 1,700 new hospital beds, the Urban Land Institute said.

When the regional leaders meet on Oct. 22, they will use a tool employed by several cities – some with success – some not, to help them shape progressive, sustainable urban growth, known as Reality Check.

Midlands Reality Check adds a “Game Day” concept to the Land Institute tool in which the leaders break into small groups of 10 with large, regional maps using LEGOs to represent new households and new jobs, and colored string to designate transportation routes. They then develop guiding principles to plot out where future jobs, housing and transportation would be best placed for long-term prosperity to the region.

“We have a very daunting task ahead of us – it’s very exciting,” said Irene Dumas Tyson, Midlands Reality Check co-chair and Bordeaux Group planning director.

Local leaders have been laying the groundwork for years now to meld the Midlands into a more cohesive and less competitive business and development region to increase its capability of competing for economic development projects with other regions. Charleston and Greenville historically have outstripped the Midlands in terms of attracting industry and new job growth.

Reality Check events by the Urban Land Institute have been held in about 15 locations around the country, according to Herbert Ames, Edens development manager and Tyson’s Midlands Reality Check co-chair, including in Greenville and Charleston, along with Richmond, Charlotte, the Research Triangle and Jacksonville, Florida.

Once the 300 leaders meet and discuss the issues, an analytics group will review the material and produce report and a vision – not a master plan, the leaders said, for taking action.

The Oct. 22 meeting will be open and as many as 1,000 people may be on hand for the event, Tyson estimated.

“Happenstance does not create great communities. Strategy, vision and execution do create great communities,” said Terry Brown, CEO of Columbia-based commercial developer Edens, which since 1966 has become one of the largest shopping center owners in the United Statesth anniversary.

“But the one thing that we all here today know without a doubt is that people want to live in great communities and businesses want to compete in great communities, and our guests want to visit in great communities,” he said.

Lexington Mayor Randy Halfacre said when he took office almost nine years ago his town had virtually “walled itself off” from its surrounding political jurisdictions “and definitely alienated the business community,” but has been building partnerships ever since.

“It’s really good stuff that’s happening,” Halfacre said of both the improved understanding that economic development is regional and the synergy he said the concept has created in the area.

“I hope that this Reality Check, this Game Day, will give us an opportunity to understand that we truly are a region … and that we all need to get in the same hymn book and try to sing the same song,” Halfacre said.

Taking note that three rivers converge here and that “rivers know no political boundaries,” Benjamin said Midlands Reality Check is part of a continuing effort to erase political boundaries and join together as one region planning for a shared future.

The leaders held the unveiling of their plans to move forward with a broad-based, but concrete proposal on a regional basis at the West Columbia Riverwalk Amphitheater.

Located on the Congaree River at the base of the Gervais Street bridge on the Lexington County side, the amphitheater is the symbolic center point of some of the Midlands’ most unique and authentic assets, according to Lexington County Council Chairman Bill Banning.

Lake Murray and Riverbanks Zoo lie to the north and west of the amphitheater, the Congaree State Park and Cayce’s 12,000-year history park are to the east, and USC, with the city of Columbia as its backdrop and Fort Jackson are to the north.

“If you think about what’s here as you cross that beautiful bridge and look around our county, (we’ve) got some beautiful resources,” Banning said. “We’re joining together to choose to grow by choice, not by chance.”

By the numbers


New residents expected in the Columbia region by 2040


New housing units that will be needed to house those new residents


Additional students that will be in Midlands area K-12 schools

SOURCE: Urban Land Institute, based on the Midlands Council of Governments