Richland County drops bid for 2nd mall, considers light rail commuter service

Richland County considered buying part of Dutch Square Center.
Richland County considered buying part of Dutch Square Center.

Richland County’s pursuit of space at a second struggling mall – Dutch Square – is apparently over and administrators are searching for another location for a transportation hub and business incubator in the St. Andrews area.

Dutch Square would have been the second mall targeted by the county as part of its ambitious $144 million Richland Renaissance building program. At Columbia Place mall at Two Notch and Parklane roads, Administrator Gerald Seals is finalizing the purchase of three abandoned anchor stores — Sears, Dillard’s and Burlington Coat Factory — to house future county offices.

The county also had been pursuing the old Belk location at Dutch Square Center, but the effort fell through, several council members said.

“That was the original idea,” council member Dahli Myers said. “There was some chatter, and it didn’t happen.”

Only a portion of the building was available, not enough for the county’s purposes, council member Greg Pearce said. That’s because one of the floors has been leased.

“Now they (administrators) are looking at other locations” in the St. Andrews area, he said.

Also, Richland County’s ambitious “Richland Renaissance” building program received its first public airing on Tuesday. The plan was developed behind closed doors and narrowly adopted by the county council in December.

Seals apologized for the lack of details available to the public prior to the council vote.

“I apologize for not giving you the details,” he said. “These are the details.”

Myers told the audience of about 175 people gathered in the former Dillard’s department store at Columbia Place that the secrecy was necessary because of the need to purchase property for the building program.

For instance, she said, if building owners knew the county was seeking to purchase the Columbia Place anchors beforehand, they would have jacked up the price, she said.

“They think the county is rich,” she said. “We were trying to protect your (tax) dollars.”

Shaw Pryor, a leasing officer for mall owners Moonbeam Capital, welcomed the county’s participation.

“We’re challenged every day to fill up these giant spaces,” he said.

The long-range plans include selling the current Richland County Judicial Center on Columbia’s Main Street, demolishing the Harden Street administration building and replacing it with a new courthouse. Administrative offices would be moved to Columbia Place and a wide range of services would be established in other parts of the county.

Seals said Tuesday that the county will need only the three anchors for now. A bid for the Macy’s anchor store at Columbia Place would be considered if the store closes, he added. The three anchor stores being purchased now would be converted for county use within the next 24 months.

There would be no change in the rest of mall, and the other store owners would not be displaced, he said.

The plan, estimated at $144.2 million, narrowly passed Richland County Council, 6-5, in December with critics complaining about a lack of public input amid fears the cost could be $250 million or higher.

Pearce, who voted against the plan, nonetheless said the shift to Columbia Place to make room for a new judicial center was a good one.

“We have a judicial center on Main Street that is outdated and is busting at the seams,” he said. “And this is going to do nothing but bring back business to the mall.”

Pearce opposed the Richland Renaissance plan because of a lack of public participation and because it has too many components.

Richland Renaissance also includes a multipurpose center in Lower Richland that will include an aquatic center. Other pieces include business incubators, a rebranding program, historical tourism trail and the transportation hub.

Council Chair Joyce Dickerson, who represents the Dutch Fork area, said the transportation would be a center for buses and potentially light-rail service to ease commuter headaches. She suggested using existing railroad tracks for the light-rail line.

“There are lots of railroad tracks up and down I-126,” she said.

She said the plan is being assembled with the city of Columbia and the Central Midlands Regional Transportation Authority, which she chairs.

Columbia City Council member-at-large Howard Duvall said City Council had not been briefed on any transportation plan, but perhaps the staff was working on it.

City Manager Teresa Wilson, through a spokeswoman, told The State that Seals “briefly discussed with her a concept for a transportation hub. However, she is on standby to receive more detailed information about the proposed plans.”

“The city is willing to work together to address the transportation of citizens,” she said.

Dickerson could not be reached Wednesday for clarification. Also, a spokesperson for the transportation authority could not be reached for comment.