We asked for ideas to make downtown special, and they flowed like the Five Points fountain. Some were good, some were bad and some were unprintable. But here are the best.
DOWNTOWN, ALL-LOCAL FARMERS MARKET
A downtown farmers market featuring only S.C. products is the idea that surfaced most often from the members of our group. It is both intriguing and timely.
From Karen Brosius, executive director of the Columbia Museum of Art: “Madison, Wis., has a superlative farmers market — in a freezing-cold state — that is set up around their State Capitol building. They have 300 dedicated farmers who come from over 30 counties. It attracts an average of 20,000 shoppers every Saturday.
“We have a great area around (the State House). People could flow up Main Street or down to the Vista.”
A market in downtown Columbia would be a throwback to the early 1900s, when farmers lined the median of Assembly Street on Saturdays.
And it would fill a void, since the State Farmers Market on Bluff Road is slated to move to Lexington County.
The ace in the hole? The state Agriculture Department recently said it’s considering regional, all-local farmers markets to pump up the “Certified S.C. Grown” brand.
We contacted Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, who is hip to the idea — at least as hip as Hugh Weathers can be. He said the department has been working quietly on a market, maybe at USC or the State Museum.
Not quite the same impact as the State House grounds, though. But access rules might make that a tough sell.
“The problem,” Weathers said, “is logistics. (By state law) you can’t have (a for-profit) enterprise on the grounds. And you have to consider what trucks and tents would do to the grounds. The trick is to balance the thing with the logistical challenges. Where can we get the most crowd with the least logistical problems? We’re all about that.”
Weathers’ opponent in the last election, Emile DeFelice, owner of Caw Caw Creek Pastured Pork, also is high on the idea. He helps run smaller organic farmers markets downtown — such as the one that rotates between the Gervais & Vine and Yo Burrito restaurants. “I’d love to see an all-S.C. market (combined with local) food, art and crafts.” He would prefer the State House “because it’s devoid of people most of the time anyway,” and, like Brosius, he thinks it would funnel folks to Main Street and the Vista.
In case the State House, State Museum or USC isn’t available, the Historic Columbia Foundation’s Robin Waites offered the expansive lawns of the city’s historic house museums. “It would encourage people to explore downtown and our signature historic sites. If it included food vendors and live music, it could become a destination.”
Chuck LeMark, co-founder of a Columbia nonprofit that works to bring water to Western Africa, threw out a third option — a return to the market’s Assembly Street roots. “Place it down the middle of the boulevard and have it open every day!”
MEDIUM-SIZED MUSIC VENUE
We asked how to improve the city’s music scene. After we dodged the rocks thrown at us for saying the music scene had weak spots, we found something that’s missing (besides another really good Hootie album). Downtown needs a mid-sized music and performing arts venue.
Tayloe Harding, dean of the USC School of Music, suggested “a specialized, high-quality chamber music and small opera facility. The new halls at Eau Claire and Dreher high schools may be this, but given the public-school schedules for these facilities, it is likely that they can NOT serve this purpose for all of Columbia.
“A 500- to 700-seat, high-quality concert hall/opera space is the missing link for public presentation spaces in Columbia.”
Marty Fort, a musician, booking agent and Columbia Academy of Arts director, said the venue also should work for rock and jazz shows. The key? “Consistent, annual funding for a mid-size, 800- to 1,000-seat, city-subsidized venue with affordable rent.”
But Larry Hembree, the Nickelodeon Theatre’s executive director, warned: “We need business-savvy management of these venues and people who understand what a real music scene looks and feels like.”
FOOD, RETAIL ON GREENWAY
The Three Rivers Greenway is growing along the rivers in Richland and Lexington counties. It’s time for the next step, and our panel thinks that’s food and shopping.
From Ozzie Nagler, who designed the Harbison neighborhood and conceptualized the greenway: “Amazingly, there is only one restaurant with a river view but no waterside dining. In all great cities in the USA and around the world, waterside land is loaded with a variety of small, connected, walk-up cafes and restaurants.”
But, he said, “there is a difference between ‘riverside’ and ‘waterside.’ We already have riverside walks. Waterside means land out of the floodway and close to a constant water level.
“The only such waterside land is on the canal behind EdVenture (near the State Museum). A precious opportunity.”
In a twist, both LeMark and Benedict College booster club president Robert Squirewell said local governments should provide free, wireless Internet access along the rivers, too. Added LeMark: “Allow vendors, including cafes, hot dog stands, artist (stands) and historic markers with info downloadable to iPods” or cell phones.
Squirewell said: “Pathways should extend from downtown to the riverfront (and be) lined with retail spaces. High-end, quality retail shops are best.”
Riverbanks Zoo director Satch Krantz, who knows a little something about working the riverfront, reminds us: “This takes vision, money and faith.”
MAKE THE TROLLEYS FREE, DIRECT
The problem with Columbia’s now-defunct trolley system was that it was too slow and undependable.
It was too slow because it had too many stops: Every business owner in the Vista, Five Points and Main Street wanted it to stop at their front door. City Council had trouble saying no.
Revive the trolleys and loop them with minimum stops, our group says. Or, as Matt Kennell, executive director of City Center Partnership, suggested, have “direct shuttles, such as from the Marriott (on Main) to the Five Points fountain with NO STOPS, so it is a quick trip.”
Many panelists were adamant that the main route have a maximum of four stops: The convention center in the Vista; the fountain in Five Points; USC’s Horseshoe; and the State House.
Mike Dawson, executive director of the River Alliance, noted that a huge problem with trolleys past was that most people didn’t know when they would show up or where they would go.
“That’s sort of Public Transportation 101,” he said.
ADD PLACES TO BIKE, WALK, SIT
Columbia has let too much time pass on this front, respondents said: Downtown must become more pedestrian-, bicycle- and tourist-friendly.
Want all that — plus greener, more-usable medians and a more beautiful downtown?
Narrow the streets.
From Gerrit Jobsis, of the American Rivers organization: “One of our blessings is that many of our downtown streets have room for bike lanes. Let’s make Columbia South Carolina’s most bike-able city. That will reduce traffic, too.”
Advice from Pat Mason, publisher of Carolina Living magazine, targeted at potential residents: “Push aggressively for the river paths to be expanded and networked throughout the city. Add fat, well-marked bike lanes.”
From architect Tom Savory of Watson Tate Savory: “Broadway, on (New York City’s) Upper West Side, has as many lanes as Gervais in the Vista, but it has a median with park benches ample enough to actually get used. ...
“We can’t pull the buildings together, but we can make medians more robust ... and pull the curb to the drive lanes periodically to decrease the seas of asphalt. ... As for heavy traffic, show me a city that’s worth visiting that doesn’t have heavy traffic, but we do need to get the traffic lights sequenced!”
From Fred Delk, executive director of the Downtown Development Corp.: The city has “the potential for beautiful boulevards. We need to develop them to the original vision for Columbia.
“Assembly Street has to go on a ‘hit list’ of near-future improvement projects, and we must expect the state of South Carolina to assist. ... Does the city have long-range plans for needed improvements (including bike lanes) along Assembly Street? Is this stuff even on the city’s radar?”