Will Vista's locally owned shops get squeezed out?

VIDEO: What would you like to see in the Vista?

Business is booming in Columbia's Vista downtown. We asked folks what businesses they believe the district still lacks in the midst of its ongoing upward swing.
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Business is booming in Columbia's Vista downtown. We asked folks what businesses they believe the district still lacks in the midst of its ongoing upward swing.

If you want a dinner table at Motor Supply Company Bistro in the Vista, you’d better have a reservation by midafternoon.

If you want a parking space in the booming entertainment district, well, you’d better be prepared to walk.

If you want to live there or shop there, stay tuned, because your options are about to multiply.

The Vista’s not just a place for people in suits eating business lunches anymore, and it hasn’t been for some time now. It’s a 24/7, feet-on-the-streets, increasingly well-rounded, live-work-play scene.

The district, in fact, has entered a period of vibrancy and economic success that locals say is unprecedented, with a business boom that’s spouting streams of new energy and character into downtown Columbia.

“I’ve never seen an explosion of residents and new businesses and energy like we’re seeing now,” said Eddie Wales, owner of Motor Supply Co. restaurant. “We have never been busier.”

He points to the newly opened Hyatt Place hotel and the planned Aloft boutique hotel as “ a great barometer of what can happen and what is happening” in the district. If those hotels have confidence that they can fill beds, then other businesses in the district can feel confident about continued success coming their way, Wales said.

“Provided that there’s no major economic type of thing that derails everything ... it’s going to be remarkable to see what the face of the Vista is 10 years from now,” said Richard Burts, president of the Congaree Vista Guild, a property and business owner and the developer behind 701 Whaley at the southern edge of the Vista.

With all its new energy, the Vista is seeing a shift in balance from its traditional climate of largely independently owned, niche businesses to increasingly more regional and national chain businesses, which in a number of cases have taken the place of longtime local tenants.

Just look at the soon-to-open Panera Bread restaurant at the prominent corner of Gervais and Park streets, where the family-owned Bluestein’s Wholesale Dry Goods store did business for nearly 60 years before closing last summer. Or the former City Market Antiques Mall and Carolina Imports furniture store, whose historic Gervais Street warehouse buildings are being renovated to house a mixed-use development that includes restaurants Newk’s Eatery and the Greenville-based Grill Marks.

As popularity and demand for space in the Vista are increasingly on the rise, so is the cost of doing business there. Higher occupancy costs could mean a tighter squeeze on the types of local characters that laid the foundation of the district’s character – the artists, the creative businesses, the mom-and-pop stores – unless developers and neighborhood leaders make it a priority to preserve that natural character, as some say they must.

“We’re happy for development to come,” said Rosie Craig, local developer, owner of M. Craig and Co. Cabinetmakers and one of the first business owners to to move to the Vista decades ago when it was still mainly an industrial warehouse district. “But we’re also very strong about protecting and not letting (go of) something that a lot of us have made a contribution to – not sacrificing the historic character of our city center.”

Balancing locals, chains

A couple of decades ago, it was a handful of independent restaurateurs, shop owners, artists and creative thinkers who more or less pioneered the Vista’s transformation.

“Typically, those folks, they have the eye of knowing what a feel of a place can be, and they see that ahead of time,” Burts said. “They see it, typically, before the mainstream hits, and they go in and create that vibe. And if you have enough mass and other things that help nurture and develop and water the seed of that vibe, then what you have is what the Vista is now.”

Wales’ Motor Supply Co. restaurant opened up 25 years ago, 15 years before he took ownership. The dining room is full almost every night, and he lauds the influx of university families and other visitors to Columbia – thanks, in part, to the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and a growing number of hotels capitalizing on the success of the district. They mingle with loyal locals to fill the restaurant.

But even while reveling in the Vista’s unprecedented growth and vibrancy, Wales expressed some concerns about the growing number of chain businesses opening up in the district.

“One thing we worry about is maintaining the character of the Vista. Chain restaurants dilute the character,” Wales said. “Even if they’re a direct competitor to me, I would rather see an independent restaurant come in as opposed to a regional chain.

“We want to see the independent, small businesses continue to thrive,” he said. “And I think there’s room for that. ... If any downtown city-center area doesn’t have some of that, they’re in trouble.”

He’s not the only one that feels that way.

“More big corporate bars – no more, please. Don’t need ’em,” Craig said. “I just don’t want to harm the really cool things that are already here, like Art Bar. ... That’s a very unique local watering hole, and I don’t want to risk those guys getting harmed by, you know, big corporate bars that come in and smush up the little guys.”

Of the more than 60 restaurants and bars in the Vista, there’s an almost even split between independents and regional or national chains. But a number of of high-profile chains such as Panera Bread, Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom and Twin Peaks, which caused a stir with its controversial reputation, have recently landed in the Vista, tossing new color onto the character of the landscape.

The retail scale tips more heavily toward locally owned shops.

Some say folks shouldn’t worry so much about chains moving into the Vista. The quirky, hippie mountain town of Asheville has a Mast General Store and, now, an Urban Outfitters, the multinational clothing store that opened two years ago in the Vista. Asheville doesn’t look or feel different because it has those and other chain stores, they say.

For the city center to thrive and support the needs of the population, a balance of independent and chain businesses is necessary, said Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corp., which helps guide development in the district. The Vista already has a pretty good balance in that respect, he said.

“A few years ago there was some political criticism of the Vista that we were not actively recruiting chains, and now the criticism is there are too many chains,” Delk said.

Delk said he doesn’t believe think the Vista is in danger of falling out of balance or losing its local, independent character.

“The nature of the neighborhood is going to drive more local and regional kinds of businesses ... because that’s who will come into an area of the type of the Vista,” he said.

Who’s getting squeezed

Simple laws of supply and demand explain why, as the Vista becomes an increasingly popular business location and vacancy rates dwindle, rents are on the rise.

While Delk says it’s still possible to find some spaces in the $20-per-square-foot price range, rents and property values are on the upswing, according to Colliers International vice president J.P. Scurry, who specializes in corporate real estate and investment properties and handles a number of available downtown properties.

“Certainly, prices and rents have increased, but if you compare occupancy costs to areas like Main Street in Greenville, downtown Charleston and other parts of the country that have similar vibrant, urban retail and restaurant areas, occupancy costs are lower or comparable,” Scurry said.

Rents and sales rates depend on a number of factors, including property location, size and condition, Scurry said, making it difficult to generalize about occupancy costs in the Vista. Generally, sale and leasing rates there are about 20-30 percent higher than in Five Points and 20-40 percent higher than Main Street, Scurry said.

The rising cost of doing business in the district is putting pressure on some of the independent businesses that started out there, especially the arts community.

“That needs to be one of our strongest focuses as the Vista Guild, is how do we protect the arts that we have nurtured over the years and how do we continue to keep them where they can be sustainable,” Burts said. “Because there’s no question pressures will be on them.”

Clark Ellefson, who was one of the earliest to put down roots in the Vista with his Lewis and Clark custom furniture and lighting store, also was one of the first artists to make the shift from the district’s core to its fringe. A decade ago, he moved his Lincoln Street workshop, store and home to the Huger Street site that’s now home to Lewis and Clark and the One Eared Cow glass art studio and gallery.

The squeeze on the arts is not a phenomenon unique to the Vista or Columbia, Delk said.

“That is a danger all over the city center as places fill up and property values get more expensive,” Delk said. “That is one of those natural things that happens. In Columbia, that is why we’re working on the Stormwater Studios project.”

Stormwater Studios is a planned artist colony set on land owned by Delk’s Columbia Development Corp. on the river side of Huger Street, the western border of the Vista, near Ellefson’s business and home. Developers could later this year erect the first structure of what is roughly planned to be a complex of three or four buildings housing studios and living spaces for artists who make large sculptures or iron works.

Wendy Wells, owner of City Art art supply store and gallery on Lincoln Street, said the Vista is still the place to go for arts in Columbia.

“When people are looking for art, they will find it,” Wells said. “When people Google ‘art in Columbia,’ they’re going to get to the Vista. Period.”

What’s still needed; what’s not coming

There are almost three times as many restaurants and bars in the Vista as there are stores to shop in. Will that ratio start to even out, or at least narrow?

“We have way more bars and taverns than we need,” Craig said. “They come because other bars and taverns are doing well. You come to a tipping point – you’ve got to have something to do other than drink, y’all.”

“The No. 1 thing the Vista needs to really rival vibrant downtowns such as Greenville and Asheville is more retail,” Wales said.

Those retail options are on their way, neighborhood leaders believe.

“The mere fact that we have 3,000 people moving in this fall, additional people living downtown, is going to require that retail and service kind of businesses follow those people,” Delk said. “I know that there are traditional retail kind of businesses, like clothing stores, that are looking in the area.”

Delk said he expects to see new retail businesses particularly looking to locate along the Blossom and Huger street corridors to the southern and western edges of the Vista, where a number of student housing developments are soon to open.

And it won’t just be clothing and other retail stores that the new residents will demand. Expect to see more service-oriented businesses, such as dry cleaners or tailors, for instance, cropping up in the area, Delk and Burts predict.

But what the Vista is much less likely to see are big-box retailers along the lines of a Target or Home Depot. That’s not because people wouldn’t be willing to shop there, though, said Scurry.

“It’s not a market issue; it’s a space issue,” Scurry said.

Those large-scale businesses, most often found in more suburban commercial cores, don’t typically gravitate toward city centers such as the Vista, Scurry said, if only because of practical matters of building size, land costs and parking restrictions.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

What would you like to see in the Vista?

We asked folks what businesses they believe the Vista still lacks in the midst of the district’s ongoing upward swing.

Haley Carpenter, 21

“A beer garden, just because it’d be cool to be able to sit outside and enjoy the outdoors and a beer with friends.”

Kaitlin Galloway, 25

I think we should have an Apple store in the Vista because we have one in Charleston, Augusta and Charlotte, but not one here. And with the USC campus and how spread out Columbia is, I think we should have one.”

David Leggett, 21

“The only thing I would change in the Vista is I would get rid of Twin Peaks. I think there’s a great mixture of local places to go, so it’s already got everything that it needs.”

Connor Maser, 22

“Something I would like to see in the Vista is Pottery Barn for Kids and ... Ikea. The reason is my wife and I are expecting our first little one in August ... so we would love to have something where we wouldn’t have to go to Charlotte and look for everything there.”

Michelle McCauley, 29

“I would like to see in the Vista more specialty shops, not necessarily on an Anthropologie level, but more of a boutique style.”

Megan Paul, 30

“I would love to see more local businesses in the Vista. It’s full of chains, and it would be really nice if we could really get to know our neighbors and help support them in their businesses.”

Caren Williams, 41

“I think it would be nice to put, I would say, a couple shopping stores down here in case people need clothing or whatever down here on the strip.”

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