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What brought Main Street back to life? Here are 5 keys

A day in the life of Main Street

Main Street resident Fernanda Randall takes The State on a tour of her downtown apartment.
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Main Street resident Fernanda Randall takes The State on a tour of her downtown apartment.

For a long while, it was a slow build for Main Street. A new event here, a new restaurant there.

For the better part of the past few decades, even until very recently, “It was basically a 9-to-5 kind of downtown, Monday through Friday,” said Matt Kennell, CEO of City Center Partnership, which promotes development in and around the Main Street corridor. “A typical state capital … lots of white-collar workers.”

It’s much more now, of course.

“You can legitimately come to Main Street now and spend an entire day or evening,” said Phill Blair, a co-owner of The Whig bar, which has thrived underground on Main since 2005.

What changed?

Something has happened to make Main Street this lively, exciting, people-filled downtown district it has become. And it was more than just a magical snowball effect.

Here are five keys to Main Street’s striking revitalization over the past few years.

Mast General Store

When this more modern take on an old-timey general store opened in 2011, Mast General became the reason to go to Main Street for many people who had long ago lost touch with, or never connected with, downtown Columbia.

The city recruited Mast to Main Street, knowing that “in every city they had been in, they were the catalyst to bring retail back to the area,” Kennell said.

North Carolina-based Mast stores, found in just eight cities in the Carolinas and Tennessee, gravitate to downtown areas that are on the cusp of revitalization, said Jeremy Becraft, manager of the Columbia store.

“We oftentimes see ourselves as an anchor store (that) other businesses might tend to follow,” Becraft said.

And in the six years since Mast opened, more than 50 businesses followed it to the Main Street district, although some since have closed.

Because it is a “destination” store, Mast’s customer draw has helped feed other businesses in the area. Perhaps you come to shop and stay to eat, or you make a full day of your trip to Main Street by catching a flick at the Nickelodeon Theatre next door.

After six years, Mast remains the most prominent and popular retail presence in a corridor that’s grown heavy with restaurant offerings.

“The reason Mast General stores are successful is we provide an experience,” Becraft said. “It’s not just you’re coming to look to buy something. You’re coming for an experience.

“The type of retail we need to come to Main Street is the type of retail that provides an experience … that people are going to want to come down to.”

The arts

There’s no such thing as a vibrant city without a vibrant arts scene, Joelle Ryan-Cook would argue.

“Cities that have a creative core to the foundation of their cities, they’ve got a lot of vibrancy there, and people want to be there,” said Ryan-Cook, deputy director of the Columbia Museum of Art.

The presence of art in a city, she said, “makes us feel like we’re in an area that’s cared for and an area that’s interesting.”

In other words, bring the arts, and the arts will bring the people.

The art museum put a stake on Main Street in the old Macy’s department store in 1998, in the early dawn of a new era on Main.

In the years following – slowly for a while, but with more intensity recently – the arts took over the district, giving it new life.

In time, there came Tapp’s Arts Center and the Nickelodeon Theatre.

“Providing entertainment and art consistently every day, all day, throughout the year, we’re bringing people to this area,” said Seth Gadsden, a director in Indie Grits’ labs at the Nickelodeon. “You know that marquee is going to be on every night, and that means a lot.”

Public art – from freshly painted murals to sculptures to chalk drawings in crosswalks to “yarn-bombed” tree trunks – have cultivated a colorful, inviting character for the district.

Arts-centered events such as the monthly First Thursday gallery crawl, Arts and Draughts at the museum, the Nick’s annual Indie Grits film festival and the Jam Room Music Festival draw huge – and growing – crowds.

The arts have become the foundation for a social scene, and people are flocking there.

Soda City Market

About a decade ago, a small market set up shop once a week on Boyd Plaza outside the art museum. Maybe a couple dozen vendors and a couple hundred people would show up, Kennell remembers.

Soda City market is that market on steroids.

In its six years on Main after moving there from Olympia, Columbia’s signature market has grown from a single block to three. It packs the streets with more than 100 vendors and thousands of shoppers, eaters and roamers every Saturday. Every Saturday.

“In this world, we’re all walking around looking at these little screens. But at the same time, we want to talk to people and meet your neighbors,” Kennell said. Soda City allows you to do that, he said.

Main Street has reaped its benefits.

Soda City is a place-maker for the district, said Becraft, whose Mast store is an easy stopover for browsing-minded market-goers.

“There’s a lot of people that come to see us that hadn’t been to Main Street in a while, but Soda City has ramped that up,” he said. “It is a major reason for people rediscovering downtown.”

Around the holidays, the market crowd blends with skaters at Main Street Ice, the rink on Boyd Plaza in front of the Columbia Museumn of Art.

Soda City puts a good face on Main Street, said the Nick’s Gadsden. And its popularity helps sell everything else that’s happening there.

“It advertises Main Street,” Gadsden said. “It brings people down here. They see what’s happening. They park all over the place, so they’re walking by everything, seeing what’s going on. It’s a huge part of letting people know what’s going on and showing people how cool Main Street is.”

Restaurants

The long-standing Whig – home to some of the best burgers and fries in town, many say – is no longer a dive bar all by its lonesome.

A steady stream of popular restaurants have filled in nearly every block of Main and its intersecting streets, the bulk of them opening since the arrival of Mast and the Nick. And they’ve been key to keeping people on the street well beyond the typical workday.

After the Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse, which landed in the former Kress department store in 2011, the next six years saw about 20 restaurants open – and stay open – in the stretch of Main and Sumter streets between the State House and Elmwood Avenue.

On one end, Oak Table and Bourbon “showed that you could put a Charleston-like, five-star-quality kind of restaurant on Main Street, and it could work,” Kennell said.

On the other, Michael’s Cafe and Catering and the Good Life Cafe brought all-day, all-evening dining and drinking options, a blessing for customers and employees of nearby places like Mast and the Nick.

“Main Street still needs to find things to keep it through the day, but it is a lot better than it had been,” said Mast’s Becraft.

A couple positive of signs of the times to note:

Drake’s Duck-In, a decades-old Main Street mainstay famous for its fried chicken, recently extended its Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening hours. Because – not to beat a dead horse, but – this is not a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday district anymore.

Franchise restaurants are moving in. See: Persona Pizzaria, East Bay Deli and the soon-to-arrive Pita Pit and Famous Toastery, among others. That’s a good sign, because they go where the business is, Kennell said.

The Hub student housing

The biggest effect of the 20-story student apartment complex that opened in 2014 was putting feet on the streets – hundreds of feet.

There are 850 beds.

The very presence of so many more people in the area around the clock has the effect of making other people – not just college students – feel safer and welcome in the area, Kennell said.

“When young people are walking or bicycling or jogging or whatever downtown, it makes it safer for everybody,” Kennell said. “When there’s lots of people walking around and young, healthy people, it just makes the area feel better and brings an energy that you want.”

New, young life on the street appears to be playing a definite role in business development, too.

It’s common to find laptop-wielding young folk grinding away at Drip and Starbucks. The popular East Bay Deli recently opened on the ground floor of the Hub. And Miss Cocky, a boutique catering to young women seeking college-themed clothing, just opened in the same block.

Even so, people like The Whig’s Blair and the Nick’s Gadsden say Main Street hasn’t turned into a student district, so to speak.

In many ways it’s not: Places such as the Main Street Publick House, Bourbon restaurant and bar, Lula Drake wine bar and others, for example, overtly cater to a more mature crowd.

Main, too, has no $1 beer specials a la Five Points, and it’s not likely to. That’ll be the day Blair calls it quits, he jokes.

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