Is Main Street becoming Columbia’s Times Square?

Just a few years ago, a person could get lonely walking on Columbia’s Main Street.

Not anymore.

Main Street from the State House north has become a bustling retail, restaurant and entertainment district that is creating jobs, convincing more residents to live there, and enticing people from around the Midlands to spend a night on the town. Main Street is busy from just after sunup to well after dusk with people going to work, meeting friends for lunch, returning home in the afternoon or having fun at night.

There’s real life here now.

There’s music, art, food, drinking, mingling. There’s a real sense of place – as in, this is the place to be in the capital city.

Most of the transformation happened in the last few years.

Columbia has been talking about the future of Main Street for a long time. But it is just recently that the place came alive – alive with restaurants like Michael’s Cafe & Catering and Cantina 76, with bars like Lula Drake and Bourbon, with events like the Soda City market and Arts and Draughts.

Main Street has become a nearly 24-hour, destination district. And its new life is life-giving for the city.

Here’s a look at Main Street from morning until night.

9 a.m: More workers attract retailers, eateries

Every morning, Tina Emerson walks across the street from her office in the NBSC building – the oddly shaped but glittering glass and steel office tower fronting the State House – to a little bakery and coffee shop on Main Street called Blue Flour

Blue Flour is located in the historic Brennen Building – Main Street’s oldest, built shortly after Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops scorched Main Street during the Civil War. It was renovated a few years ago by owners First Citizens Bank, and now also houses the restaurant Bourbon

The juxtaposition of old and new on Main Street is significant.

Emerson’s law firm, Rogers Townsend & Thomas, last year moved to its flashy new digs from a suburban office park. The experience of being on a revitalized Main Street —filled with new businesses in cool, old buildings – has proved to be a boost for not only the firm’s business, but the employees’ morale as well.

“You can’t get a latte at the Cracker Barrel,” Emerson, the firm’s marketing director, said about their former offices near Interstate 20 in St. Andrews.

An estimated 20,000 people work in the Main Street District, which runs from Elmwood Avenue to Gervais Street, and Assembly Street to Marion Street. That number is up from about 16,000 five years ago.

The majority of them work in law and public relations firms located in office towers as well at Palmetto Health Baptist on Sumter Street. Occupancy rates in downtown office towers are maxing out at around 90 percent, depending on the quality of the space, according to David Lockwood of Colliers International.

“So employers are trying to put more people into their existing space,” he said.

That influx of workers, along with a growing numbers of residents, is sparking developers to turn underused, old and in many cases historic, two-story brick buildings into restaurants, bars and apartments.

As a result, more and more business is being conducted at comfy businesses like Blue Flour, where deals are struck and clients consulted over cappuccino and crumb cake.

“I have a lot of meetings here,” said Emerson, who’s taking her coffee black on a busy Tuesday. “This is part of our client experience.”

- Jeff Wilkinson

1 p.m.: Many restaurant options for lunch

Michael’s is packed for lunch.

Business people in suits dash in to grab a take-out sandwich, or huddle at one of the few tables for an impromptu meeting.

Two ladies sit at a corner table sipping wine and laughing. A group of government workers circle around a table out front, enjoying an al fresco gathering.

Along with East Bay Deli, Perona Pizza and Good Life Cafe, Michael’s is one of a growing number of restaurants along Main Street.

But Michael’s wasn’t even supposed to be a restaurant. And its owner, Scott Middleton, isn’t really a restaurateur.

You see, Middleton is the founder and chief executive of Agape Senior, a huge South Carolina-based health care firm specializing in hospice care and physician services to nursing homes and home care patients. When Middleton was looking around for a new headquarters, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and Mashburn Construction president Lee Mashburn convinced him to renovate three historic buildings.

Middleton agreed and turned them into rabbit warren of good stuff – offices, a conference center, a gym, a doctors office, a pharmacy.

“We could see that Main Street was beginning to turn,” Middleton said.

He planned to build a catering kitchen for the conference center; but historic preservation officials required that the space he planned to use couldn’t be enclosed. So they added a catering counter and a few tables and opened a deli.

“We thought it would be a grab-and-go place,” assistant manager Lisa Weiland said. From Day One, there was a deluge of customers. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, these people have nowhere to eat!’”

Michael’s has since expanded its menu and its space, added outdoor seating and opened the conference center’s banquet hall as overflow seating – often needed for its popular Sunday brunch.

“We get a lot of repeat business,” he said.

- Jeff Wilkinson

5 p.m.: Returning home to Main Street

Every afternoon, Fernanda Randall, 31, walks home from work. It’s a whopping two blocks. That’s because the accountant moved to Main Street less than a year ago to not only be close to her job, but to be in the center of all the city’s burgeoning action.

On Saturdays, you can find her at Soda City market, picking out veggies and other miscellaneous sundries. In need of coffee? Drip is just a short un-caffeinated walk away. Gym? On the next block. And if there’s a movie playing at The Nickelodeon, she can hear it in her apartment, where she can also see and hear First Thursday activities.

On the first Thursday of every month, several Main Street businesses stop open later and offer a mix of specials, events and entertainment.

“I go to the grocery store every Thursday or Friday, but that’s the only time I drive. I was able to negotiate my car insurance bill in half after moving here,” said Randall, who pays $1,125 a month in rent, plus $25 for parking.

Randall is one of an estimated 1,400 people who live on Main Street. That number is up from about 400 five years ago, before The Hub student housing complex opened in the old Palmetto Center office tower.

Timothy Hose, President & CEO of SYNCO Properties, says the demand to live on Main Street has grown as the city has invested in landscaping, the arts, parking, safety and encouraging retailers to give old brick-and-mortar stores a new lease on life.

“Main Street’s appeal as a location for housing will grow as more venues for dining, entertainment, and employment are added,” Hose said. “During the next ten years, Main Street will be where older properties are renovated for new uses, and new buildings are constructed on sites previously used for other purposes. Both the older renovations and new buildings will include a mix of uses, including housing, most of which is likely to be rentals versus for-sale.”

Jeremy Becraft, general manager of Mast General Store and City Center Partnership executive board member, has noticed an uptick in feet on the street...and he’s not complaining.

“I welcome the continued residential development that’s happening downtown,” he said. “Not just here in Columbia but, I think, around the country, the idea of living in an urban environment has become kind of cool and hip again. You get people that want to live in a place where they have everything so close by that they might not want to have a car.”

- Dwaun Sellers

9 p.m.: A night on the town on Main

Main Street doesn’t die in the dark anymore.

As daylight fades, the place lights up.

The marquee of the Nickelodeon Theatre shines on movie-goers leaving from an evening feature.

Warm lights seep from the windows of Lula Drake, Main Street Public House and on down the street, where people are hanging out in places that didn’t exist or would’ve already shut their doors by this hour only a handful of years ago.

“The past two years have kind of been the big turning point,” said Phill Blair, a co-owner of The Whig bar, a modern Main Street pioneer. Going strong in the 1200 block since 2005, “We’re definitely the old guys” on the street, Blair said.

Main Street used to be where happy hour wasn’t even a thing, he remembers. “On a Saturday, you could walk from The Whig to Elmwood (Avenue) and not see a single person or an open door,” he said.

But a “snowball effect” of people and businesses has put activity on the street at nearly all hours these days, Blair said.

This is still no big-city street, make no mistake.

But it’s alive, it’s comfortable, and there’s a genuine nightlife scene here. You might not brush many shoulders on the sidewalks most nights, but you very well might wait in line for a seat at your favorite dinner or drink spot.

“On a weekend night, on a given night, it can feel really lit up,” said Seth Gadsden, director of Indie Grits labs at the Nickelodeon. “And that’s really great for our customers that are pouring out onto the street at 11 p.m., because it’s not a desolate street.”

New businesses and events are changing the nighttime culture on Main Street.

Take Lula Drake Wine Parlour, the new go-to for a girls’ night or date night. And Main Street Public House, which is reviving the live music scene here.

The quarterly Arts and Draughts party that Blair helped start at the Columbia Museum of Art five or six years ago has grown from about 500 people to about 2,000 people at each event, he said.

The monthly First Thursday nights bring out the arts crowd and your trusty after-work-eating-and-drinking crowd. And occasional festivals keep people on the street and streaming in and out of businesses from dinnertime ’til bedtime.

On nights like those, which come along more often than ever, plan to stop every so often along the sidewalk to listen to a band, dip into a pop-up art gallery and catch up with the friends you were bound to bump into.

- Sarah Ellis

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC