Richland spent millions on ‘Renaissance’ real estate. What happened to the buildings?

Richland County bought three anchor stores at Columbia Place Mall on Two Notch Road.
Richland County bought three anchor stores at Columbia Place Mall on Two Notch Road. gmelendez@thestate.com

One year after Richland County unveiled its ambitious and controversial Richland Renaissance development plan and bought millions of dollars of properties, those empty buildings hang in limbo.

Richland Renaissance was a sweeping countywide vision that included a new courthouse, county offices, transportation hub, business incubator, hospital and aquatics center, among other elements.

After being made public last December, that plan lasted all of five months before an acrimonious County Council nixed it in May — but not before the county had spent more than $8 million to buy at least six buildings across the county, including three anchor stores at Columbia Place Mall off Two Notch Road.

County leaders have said they are still interested in pursuing elements of the original Renaissance plan, including a courthouse and offices for some county agencies.

For now, though, the county is saddled with half a dozen newly purchased properties that now produce no tax revenue and continue to wait for their futures to be decided. They include the former Dillard’s, Sears and Burlington Coat Factory stores at Columbia Place Mall, where several dozen smaller stores and restaurants are still in business. The three anchor stores alone produced about $204,000 in annual tax revenue before they were bought by the county.

Having these unused properties in the county’s hands “does concern me,” said Councilman Paul Livingston, the longest-serving member of County Council. “We just have to be responsible about what we do with them.”

County Council recently commissioned a $400,000 study to evaluate the county’s office space needs and the possible uses of the properties it has.

“We know that Richland County has all these internal needs. We’re bursting out of our own building,” said Councilwoman Dalhi Myers, who leads the council’s property distribution management committee.

She said she expects the old Sears building at Columbia Place Mall could become a public safety hub, possibly with space for a new 911 call center, an emergency operations center and some sheriff’s department uses. Multiple locations have been considered in recent months to house those services.

The space study will be discussed at the council’s January retreat in Charleston, at which point a clearer picture of the buildings’ future should emerge, Myers said.

“I don’t think any of the uses will be different than what Renaissance proposed,” Myers said.

Based on recent council discussions, the public safety services and several county and state agencies — including the Department of Social Services and Department of Juvenile Justice — are the current top priorities for new spaces.

But “what’s not being talked about, interestingly enough, is the judicial center and the administration center” — that is, the two major elements that gave birth to the original Renaissance plan, said Councilman Greg Pearce, who is retiring this year after two decades on council.

The Renaissance plan had called for moving county offices from 2020 Hampton St. downtown into Columbia Place Mall then moving the judicial center to 2020 Hampton St. and selling the current judicial center on Main Street.

Council members have talked about organizing a citizen-driven committee to explore needs and wants for a new judicial center. The current courthouse, which opened on Main Street in 1980, is in desperate need of upgrades and more space, county leaders have said for several years.