North Main Street, particularly the underutilized and long-neglected commercial corridor between Elmwood Avenue and the railroad trestle at Earlewood Park, continues to build momentum as Columbia’s next hot spot.
The War Mouth, an upscale but accessible restaurant with an outdoorsy twist, has opened in one of several empty 1950s and 1960s industrial buildings clustered on Franklin Street in Cottontown, just off North Main. And the Cotton Town Brew Lab – two planned craft beer breweries and a super-sized tasting room – is being built in a former garage complex just down the street.
Those two new businesses join vegan restaurant Lamb’s Bread, the wine and craft beer retailer Vino Garage, North Main Bakery and others near the intersection of North Main and Franklin Street. They form a foundation that owners and residents hope will become a cluster of businesses drawing residents of adjacent Cottontown, Earlewood, Elmwood Park and Keenan Heights – all gentrified neighborhoods boasting a large number of young professionals.
“We wanted to go for a neighborhood feel,” The War Mouth co-owner Porter Barron said from the dining room of the airy, barrel-roofed former auto repair garage at 1209 Franklin St. “And we wanted an outdoor barbecue pit. We couldn’t do that in the heart of downtown.
“So we found this strange little commercial district that allowed us to do what we wanted to do.”
Officially, there is no “North” Main, just as there isn’t a “South” Main, as both corridors are historically and universally called.
And like its phantom moniker, North Main always has been an anomaly in the city – a stepchild to the traditional downtown commercial districts of Five Points, The Vista and the core of Main Street between Elmwood Avenue and the State House on Gervais Street.
North Main is lined with mostly empty auto dealerships, garages and light industrial buildings from decades past. And it has a reputation as a haven for homeless folks drawn to a cluster of nearby homeless services.
The War Mouth – named after a freshwater bream-like game fish – recently had a minor break-in, co-owner and chef Rhett Elliot said, but the perpetrator took only a couple bottles of top shelf gin, including one from Columbia distiller Copper Horse.
“He liked the good stuff,” Elliot said, “locally sourced.”
‘A distinct character’
Doug Aylard, owner of Vino Garage, said the perception of a homeless problem is in great part because of the feeding center, which is a few blocks from the homeless service centers at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Main Street. Homeless people leave the centers for lunch at 11 a.m., and then return at 1 p.m.
“You can set your watch by it,” he said.
But Frank Cason, a developer and third co-owner of the The War Mouth, said the homeless problem is more perception than reality.
“There’s not a bigger perception issue in the city than here,” he said. “People think it’s blighted, but it’s not.”
Cason said he is working to bring in two specialty retail shops, and “they are really past the homeless issue,” he said.
To offset some of that perception, there are efforts to rebrand North Main. One is NOMA – an acronym for North Main. The other is “Upper Main.”
Fred Delk is the executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which guides and encourages investment in The Vista and other downtown areas. He noted the North Main area runs from Elmwood all the way to Interstate 20, bordering about two dozen neighborhoods.
The stretch between Elmwood and the trestle “has a distinct character,” he said. “So there’s some value in attempting to identify that as a distinctive corridor.”
The last frontier
The reason for the interest is the affordability, ample parking and the more than 2,000 residents of the adjacent neighborhoods.
“North Main is the last pioneer location in downtown Columbia,” Delk said. “It’s the last place where a pioneer like The War Mouth can lease an affordable building and a parking lot in the downtown area within sight of the State House.”
Cason said North Main property leases for about half to two-thirds of the $25 to $32 per square foot in The Vista.
That, and the presence of 2,000 residents within walking distance, was attractive to Zack Jones, who co-owns the Cotton Town Brew Lab with Matthew Rodgers, who also brews beer at the Old Mill Brewpub in Lexington
“We looked at Cayce, West Columbia and Lexington,” he said. “We wanted to be close to a neighborhood that appreciated craft beer. This area is about to take off because of its proximity to the neighborhoods and downtown.”
We found this strange little commercial district that allowed us to do what we wanted to do.
Porter Barron, co-owner of The War Mouth
And while brewing is an industrial concern – Jones’ sprawling complex includes four connected industrial buildings – it’s an industry that can co-exist with a residential neighborhood.
“There’s no noise,” he said. “No smell and very few employees. It’s super neighborhood friendly.”
All of those interviewed said the Franklin Street-North Main intersection has all the makings of a new food and drink cluster.
“I’m very excited about having The War Mouth and the Brew Lab here,” said Aylard, who opened Vino Garage four years ago. “Both have a strong sense of independence, which a lot of people in the area appreciate. What I am seeing, and hope to continue to see, is a wave of independent businesses coming in and keeping this area cool.”
Notable North Main businesses
▪ The War Mouth
▪ Cotton Town Brew Lab
▪ Vino Garage
▪ Lamb’s Bread
▪ North Main Bakery
▪ Carolina Imports Furniture
▪ Sweet Temptations Bakery