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Will planned charter school on North Main kill Cottontown’s cool new businesses?

Charter school plans to open on Columbia’s North Main Street

Clear Dot Charter School plans to open next year in the former Jim Moore Cadillac dealership on North Main Street in Columbia. The property's development has been seen as key to development in the Cottontown neighborhood.
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Clear Dot Charter School plans to open next year in the former Jim Moore Cadillac dealership on North Main Street in Columbia. The property's development has been seen as key to development in the Cottontown neighborhood.

Opposition is building to a new charter school in the red hot Cottontown/North Main area, as merchants and residents worry that its location will threaten their liquor licenses, snarl traffic and kill retail growth in the area.

The Clear Dot charter school is planned for the former Jim Moore Cadillac dealership on the 2200 block of North Main Street. The 5-year, $20-million renovation project will cover 5.45 acres, or nearly the entire block bordered by Main, Franklin, Sumter and Scott streets.

The long-abandoned dealership is bordered on two sides by the emerging Cottontown retail district, featuring The War Mouth restaurant, Indah Coffee and Cottontown Brew Lab, among others.

But several merchants told The State this week that the school’s presence in the center of the district could threaten their liquor licenses. Also, they said, the school would create a commercial dead spot in the middle of the district that could be fertile ground for more development.

“It just stops growth,” said Tommy Price, an investor in the Citta del Cotone pizzeria, which owner Rick Marzan plans to open in about two weeks at 2150 Sumter St., directly across the street from the school site.

“The city has spent a lot of money on North Main,” Price said, “and you just won’t have any more restaurants come in here.”

NOMA, as some call the area bordered by Elmwood Avenue and the North Main Street railroad trestle, has seen a renaissance in recent years, beginning with the popular The War Mouth restaurant and spreading along Franklin and Sumter streets.

North Main itself has been beautified and lighted and has seen businesses like Curiosity Coffee emerge to join pioneering vegan restaurant Lamb’s Bread.

The planned school in the center of that growth poses a quandary for North Main boosters, according to Carl Blackstone, president and CEO of the Columbia Chamber.

“Overall, a charter school in the Cottontown, Earlewood, Elmwood Park area would have a significant impact on the educational opportunities for the kids in that area,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be done at the expense of current or future business owners. It could be a win-win for Columbia if the permitting issues get worked out or an alternative location is found.”

Remodeling of the Jim Moore complex should begin in January, officials have said, with the school to open in the fall of the 2019-2020 school year. The school would be K-12 and could house 1,000 students at full capacity, they said.

But central to the merchants’ fears is that their businesses would be within 300 feet of the school. State law and city ordinances don’t allow alcohol to be sold within 300 feet of a school, church or playground..

Although existing businesses would likely be grandfathered in, merchants worry they wouldn’t be able to sell their businesses down the road.

“It puts the burden on me if my license lapsed for any reason; if I have trouble of any sort,” said Porter Barron, owner of The War Mouth at 1209 Franklin St. “I wouldn’t be able to get it back. It jeopardizes the value of our business (and) my ability to sell the business in the future.”

But Lindsey Ott, superintendent of Clear Dot, said that under a new provision in state law, the school can sign a waiver allowing the sale of alcohol within 300 feet. She said the school’s board would be willing to sign a waiver of the 300-foot rule.

“We were totally aware of that issue,” she said. “We want to be a community school.”

But it may be more complicated than that, the merchants said.

The city’s ordinance mirrors the state’s. But there are no waiver provisions at the city level, said Zack Jones, who owns Cottontown Brew Lab, a microbrewery at 1223 Franklin Street. He said city officials recently had him reduce the size of his tasting room because it is within 300 feet of new Columbia Presbyterian Church, a half block away, even though the church signed a state waiver.

“What happened with the church made us all nervous,” he said. “So when the school comes in, I have no idea where things are going from there.”

City officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Also:

Twelve Cottontown businesses have penned a letter to the S.C. Department of Education’s Office of of School Facilities, which must check off on the charter school, citing their concerns about the project.

“Our businesses chose to relocate or open anew in this area because we wanted to be part of an effort to impact Columbia in a positive way, increase property values, and create a place for entrepreneurs to flourish,” it says. “Instead, the proposed Charter School could impact that progress and negatively impact our businesses twice a day because it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get to us” as parents drop off or pick up their children.

The Cottontown/Bellevue Historic District Neighborhood Association penned a letter to school officials listing similar concerns.

“The Cottontown Neighborhood Association neither endorses, nor opposes the Clear Dot Charter School,” it says. “While (the association) expresses concerns about some of the negative impacts of the school upon the neighborhood, we are also encouraged about the positive impacts that a school of this caliber will bring to the community. We also remain optimistic that the school and developer will continue to cooperate and communicate with (us) to achieve a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship in the event that the school indeed locates in Cottontown.”

Ott said the school is working with state and local officials to address the concerns.

They are developing a site that they hope will blend well with neighborhood, she said, and are adjusting their traffic plan to address state Department of Transportation concerns.

“We have received their comments and are responding to those comments,” Ott said.

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