5 questions for Columbia developer Ben Arnold

Grand opening of Vista businesses

The Ben Arnold Cos. celebrated the opening of West End Alley on Gervais Street in the Vista Thursday.
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The Ben Arnold Cos. celebrated the opening of West End Alley on Gervais Street in the Vista Thursday.

We posed these five questions to Columbia developer Ben Arnold, who celebrated the grand opening of his West End Alley project on Gervais Street in Columbia’s Vista last week. A sculpture, called “Harmony,” also was officially dedicated to the city of Columbia.

What is West End Alley?

West End Alley is a 75,000-square-foot entertainment complex in the heart of the Vista on Gervais and Gadsden streets. . . . West End Alley has 457 parking spaces and numerous opportunities to eat and drink inside or outside. The age of the buildings ranges from the historic landmark Depo Building, built in 1852, to a converted distribution center building from the late 1970s. The whole development sits on slightly more then 8 acres ... The West End Alley name is based on having venues in the alley between 700 and 800 Gervais St. . . .

We have numerous concepts looking at the former Jillian’s space, but cannot announce anything at this time. We are being real selective on what goes there as we want it to fit into our existing mix and offer something unique to the Vista and downtown.

The buildings there have a lot of history. Talk about the renovation and the new Gervais Street facade.

The renovation involved multiple materials, which include three species of wood, metal, painted concrete as well as traditional brick. We added a lit-up parapet to give the building more presence from Gervais Street and to add light and excitement to the development. We also added Palmetto Trees wrapped in Christmas lights and gas lanterns that have a flame with a twirling effect. . . . A portion of the Alley is covered patio with fans so even when it is hot outside, we have a nice setting.

Tell us about the sculpture dedicated at West End alley last week and its significance.

During the flood of 2015, I was amazed at how the citizens and the city government as well as state government pulled together to help people in need. I had numerous friends lose their houses as well as access to basic services during the flood. . . . There were stories of people all over town making sacrifices for people they did not even know. This was so moving that I wanted to do something that would be a reminder to help others in need. That is when I called my best friend in Miami, Stephen Gamson. Stephen is a famous artist who has done a lot civic art, from murals to sculptures in Miami and many other places (including the Mural on The Palms on Main in Columbia). Stephen had come up from Miami the week after the flood for a family event and had witnessed what was going on firsthand. I mentioned to Stephen that we need a sculpture to not only go with West End Alley, but show the harmony that we were experiencing in Columbia. Stephen came up with the design we now have on Gervais Street. Even though the sculpture is abstract art, I thought the shape looked a little like the musical symbol – treble clef. When I think of music, I think of harmony, so it was appropriate to name the piece “Harmony” and it fit what we were trying to convey.

Where does the 700/800 Gervais Street project fit overall into the rapidly emerging new face of the Vista entertainment and restaurant district?

We want it to be a focal point and to complement the other businesses, hotels and housing options around it. We also want it to serve more than just the Vista. The Vista is more than an entertainment district. It is growing new hotels, housing options and business. West End Alley is designed to serve the greater region as well as out-of-town guests attending conventions and staying in our new and existing hotels.

What's next for Ben Arnold Companies in Columbia?

We are always looking and planning for the future. The key is to do the right projects at the right time in the right locations. We have some of the best locations in town and will redevelop and develop vertically as the City grows and needs become apparent. West End Alley and its strategically located land and location lends itself to some much larger projects in the future. If there can be cooperation between the government, university and private land owners, the possibilities are fantastic!

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