West Columbia’s riverfront district may look very different as soon as this summer

The area around the West Columbia riverwalk doesn’t yet look like a hub of entertainment. It’s full of lots dominated by construction equipment and piles of dirt. Yet when Mayor Pro Tem and council member Tem Miles rides around the area, he sees the future.

In the building that used to house city hall and the old jailhouse next door, he visualizes a restaurant and a cool brewery by Augusta-based Savage Craft Ale Works.

In the sloped parking lot behind the strip that houses New Brookland Tavern and Terra, he imagines an extra-large public sidewalk with art installations, a mural, lights and much more parking (375 additional spaces around the riverwalk, to be specific). Miles, 40, also sees — literally this time — a wooden shelter for farmer’s market vendors to set up tables of produce and goods. That will come to fruition in mid-May, according to city spokesperson Anna Huffman.

Miles sees people — maybe families who live in the planned area of brand new detached single-family homes nearby — walking between the riverwalk and the new attractions. And it’s all a not-yet-real realization of why he has served on council for five years: To see what the city could become.

“I heard for so long that West Columbia was on the cusp,” he said while sitting at the riverwalk amphitheatre on a sunny Friday afternoon in March.

Mayor pro tem and council member Tem Miles visits a construction site near State Street in West Columbia. Where Miles stood will be turned into an easement with public art, lights, a farmer’s market structure and additional parking. It is one of multiple attractions under construction in the area. Isabella Cueto icueto@thestate.com

He can point to a fenced in, flattened, empty gravel lot and see a park, where children of all abilities can play together. This one is special.

He imagines his 9-year-old daughter, Emma, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 6 months old, having fun on toys that are safe for her. Because of her condition, the “funny” and “gracious” girl has limited use of her hands and is wheelchair-bound, and it can be difficult for her parents to find parks where she can play. It’s even harder for Miles and his wife, Cassie, to find parks where their three children can play together in the same area.

As a parent with a unique perspective, an attorney familiar with governmental processes and a community leader, Miles said he felt responsible for “pushing the ball forward,” toward greater accessibility.

This “enabling park,” which will open at the end of July, will have toys for children of all abilities to play with and climb in and on. The park will also have a covered structure with bathrooms and a picnic area. In order to create a park that was sensitive to a range of disabilities, Miles said he served on a committee with counselors, special education teachers and at least one person who used a wheelchair.

The city contracted the McAdams Group to design the park, since the company specializes in these kinds of projects.

The riverfront district is an $8 million vision that has been in the works for years, Miles said, and it’s just one piece of what the city of West Columbia is trying to become. The projects are being paid for by a special tax district, as well as hospitality taxes and state and federal grant money.

Richard Skipper, executive director of the Cayce-West Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the new sites will create “niche destinations” for tourists and residents of the Midlands.

“These destination parks will also drive business to our local businesses on the Lexington County side of our rivers,” he wrote in an email.

Owners of remaining State Street businesses — Catitude Cafe and 116 State Street both closed in March, though not because of parking issues — say they are hopeful the construction projects will bring pedestrian traffic to the area, but until then a lack of parking could be an issue.

“When it’s done, it’s going to be awesome,” said State Street Pub owner Jim Oken.

He said his business is not as affected by the lack of parking as some others because there is a small lot in the back for his customers. He gets a lot of regulars and they mostly come in at night. Even so, he said the pub has lost $1,000 per week because of the surrounding construction.

The city set up a free valet service for guests of the pub and neighboring businesses to help make up for a lack of parking. There is also a shuttle available for customers. Oken said it might have been better timing for everyone if the city would have completed a planned 150-space parking garage in the area before beginning construction.

Winston Collins, manager of a floral and antique shop down the road from the pub, said he is looking forward to the new business the upgrades could bring.

“We hope it brings a lot,” he said.

Until then, he said city officials have kept him up-to-date on construction timelines.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.