Within the last year, Mark Smith saw blue lights three times in one week on Monticello Road outside Columbia International University.
He now thinks: “That’s done.”
Smith is the president of CIU, and on Tuesday he and other political and community leaders announced the beginning of what they’re calling a revitalization of the North Columbia area.
The university purchased eight properties and businesses on the north side of Interstate 20 along the 6000 block of Monticello Road in the latter part of last year. Now only ruins and dirt of the former shops and blighted properties remain, making room for a means to “uplift the community,” Smith said.
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Finalizing the demolition was a crucial part of altering the area because the blighted properties and businesses — one a bar — attracted crime and kept away new development, Smith and others said.
Deputy Chief Chris Cowan of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department called the project a chance to “reclaim Monticello Road and run the bad guys out of Richland County.”
Smith recalled a conversation with Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott in which the lawman said one of the purchased properties attracted more crime than any other address along Monticello.
Other political leaders echoed the revitalization sentiments. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said this was a change “from bad to be used for good,” while state Sen. John Scott, a Democrat who represents the area, said the now empty properties could bring in new and needed funds to the area.
“We’ve laid the groundwork for many years,” Scott said. “When we can bring people in . . . we can begin to attract industries in.”
The university is talking with businesses about developing the properties, according to Smith. He said he’s approached gas station owners, small banks and drug stores about building and has a “handshake agreement” on a “nice business venture” worth $4 million that will bring in jobs and help clean up North Columbia.
CIU efforts began about a year ago after university professor and Temple Zion Baptist Church Pastor Andre Melvin began talking with community leaders from Bookert Heights, Denny Terrace, Forest Heights and Wages Road neighborhoods concerning vacant buildings, trash, and public safety issues along Monticello Road.
Now that the properties have been purchased and buildings demolished, the university is asking Richland County Council to provide funds for street lighting and $200,000 to renovate a building for a sheriff’s department substation.
Buying and razing the properties are part of CIU’s growth during the last two years, which includes building a business and information technology center. The center is set to be done this fall.
The projects show a desire to serve the community that the university lives in, Smith said.
“You see buildings that are being torn down, you see lots that are being made clean,” Smith said. “Monticello Road, the forgotten community, is not going to be forgotten anymore.”