Two Notch merchants band together to improve safety, boost image of area

In early December, about 60 business owners, residents and city officials gathered to talk about problems on Two Notch Road.

Ron Bryan, pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, gave the opening prayer.

The next morning, he sent this e-mail to the group: "Our church was broken into while we were at the meeting."

That is exactly the kind of problem the Two Notch Road Merchants Association wants to fix on the 1.8-mile stretch of road between Beltline Boulevard and Taylor Street.

"A business crime watch would mean so much," said Benny Clark, the association's president and owner of the McDonald's restaurant at Two Notch Road and Beltline Boulevard.

Clark and a handful of other Two Notch merchants formed the association about two years ago. But it struggled to make a difference.

Now, it is re-energized and recruiting area merchants and residents to participate. The goal, Clark said, is to make the area more business-friendly.

"We invite a lot of young people into our business," Clark said of his McDonald's. "We want people to feel secure and comfortable."

Clark said he is tired of people loitering on the corner or in the parking lot. Some people will come inside and buy a cup of coffee and then sit all day.

The section of Two Notch represented by the merchants association includes dozens of vacant buildings. But there are plenty of viable businesses: A Ford dealership, a U-Haul center, convenience stores and a florist.

But merchants are afraid they will lose customers if the area is not cleaned up. People in the meeting complained of prostitution and drug dealing on the street.

Robert Carswell, co-owner of Health Plus, a medical equipment business, said he was forced to relocate farther down Two Notch after customers complained about prostitutes outside his old store. He said he will become involved in the group, though, because he still lives in the neighborhood.

Bryan, the church pastor, said his congregation has lost members because of the street's condition. He frequently hears people say they are afraid to attend Sunday and Wednesday evening worship services.

"They're just afraid it's a dangerous part of the city," he said.

City Councilman E.W. Cromartie told the group staying connected is key to the changing the street's reputation.

"If there's a problem, you know what the problem is because one of the merchants in the association called you," he said.

Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter said business owners can cut down on crime if they are united.

"It's almost like putting another cop in your neighborhood," he said. "Two Notch has lacked that connectivity."

If people who live and work along that section of Two Notch cooperate with each other and the police, they will send the message that crime is not welcome, Carter said.

"When you have prostitution and drugs and lots of crime in your neighborhood, people have tolerated it and it has become acceptable," he said.

The first goal is to clean up the crime, Clark said.

"It's the same old people doing the same old things," he said.

Once that is accomplished, he hopes, the merchants can band together on other projects such as streetscaping.

Bryan hopes the group can encourage owners of vacant buildings to clean up their property. That would help improve the area's image, he said.

"We're going to have to do everything we can to change that," Bryan said.

The group's new efforts already have produced results. During the December meeting, one business owner complained about street lights that had been dark for months. Someone else in the room knew a contact at SCE&G. The lights are on.

"No one had taken the responsibility to call," Clark said.