Phil Carter leans forward in a patio chair outside Drip coffee, eyes trained on a laptop screen he is filling with lyrics for his next rap battle.
The 22-year-old University of South Carolina senior has been a regular at the Main Street shop since his sophomore year, when he visited friends who had moved into The Hub, then a new student housing complex across the street.
Carter, a marketing major who goes by “Philabuster” on the rap-battle stage, says the shop-lined corridor’s steady hum of crawling cars, chatting shoppers and chirping birds helps him focus on his schoolwork or music. “I’ll come here, open a Google Doc and write rhymes,” the Lexington resident says.
Carter is far from the only USC student living, working or playing along downtown Columbia’s newly revitalized Main Street corridor.
On this humid July afternoon, his classmates can be found walking dogs on wide, red-brick sidewalks, finishing off scoops of Sweet Cream ice cream or throwing back tacos at Cantina 76.
The number of students illustrates how USC’s growth has helped resurrect and transform downtown’s Main Street district, once dominated by office workers.
Separated from USC’s campus by a four-lane thoroughfare and the State House complex, the area long had missed out on the college crowd.
But USC’s record growth in its enrollment has brought an explosion of new student housing in Columbia, including Main Street’s 850-bed Hub. The former SCANA headquarters, converted into student housing, reintroduced students to Main Street, giving the area’s shops and restaurants a built-in customer base and youthful ambassadors to spread the corridor’s gospel.
“The day The Hub opened, Main Street became energized with more people on the street,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides downtown development. “Students have just been incredible for the area – a lot of fun, youthful activity.
The day The Hub opened, Main Street became energized with more people on the street. Students have just been incredible for the area.
— Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides downtown development
“Certainly, they have money to spend, and they are spending it.”
‘They moved in, basically, overnight’
In 2000, about 23,700 students called USC home.
Today, that number has ballooned to 34,100, and the state’s flagship university will welcome another record freshman class this fall.
USC’s expansion – meant to maximize tuition revenue to offset state funding cuts – sparked a student housing boom that has helped transform Columbia.
Investors have spent or pledged more than $560 million to construct no fewer than 16 developments – most in downtown Columbia – with more than 6,000 beds for the growing student body.
The largest of them was The Hub, an amenity-heavy, luxury apartment complex that opened in 2014 at the former SCANA headquarters at 1426 Main St., smack in the middle of the commercial district.
Entering its fourth year as an apartment complex, the 20-floor behemoth is home to roughly two-thirds of Main Street’s residents.
“That’s a neighborhood, and they moved in, basically, overnight,” said Martha Studstill, the owner of Uptown on Main, a gift shop that opened in 2008.
USC is proud of the role it has played in reinvigorating life on Main Street.
“No matter what anybody says, the revitalization of downtown Columbia came in good part because SCANA vacated it and it became a housing complex,” USC Student Affairs vice president Dennis Pruitt said recently of 1426 Main.
No matter what anybody says, the revitalization of downtown Columbia came in good part because SCANA vacated (its corporate headquarters on Main Street) and it became a housing complex.
— USC Student Affairs vice president Dennis Pruitt
Students have boosted business and changed Main Street’s culture, observers say.
Their regular hikes to and from campus ensure Main Street’s sidewalks are busy at all hours, not just during lunch and dinner.
The students’ schedules also have lengthened Main Street’s lunch hour, as restaurants accommodate students who eat during breaks between or after class.
Their street traffic has bred more street traffic, helping Columbia residents – runners, mothers with strollers, casual shoppers and USC employees – feel safer.
“Having people there all day long really helps out the business,” said Drip coffee owner Sean McCrossin. “I’ve always liked being around the youth. ... They’re not quite jaded and cynical. They have this energy that gets lost on older people.”
Students have helped create a “softer downtown” feel, said Matt Kennell, chief executive of the City Center Partnership, which promotes downtown Columbia. “You’ll see a lot of suits and attorneys, but you’ll also see a lot of young people wearing athletic attire or walking dogs.”
More people means more business, Main Street merchants attest.
And more businesses.
Close to 30 restaurants, bars, clothing stores and other businesses have opened their doors along Main Street since 2014, when The Hub opened, according to the City Center Partnership’s records.
They include the Masala on Main yoga sanctuary, Main Street Public House and East Bay Deli – located on The Hub’s first floor.
“Downtown had been pretty substantially abandoned,” Delk said. “Now, it’s a pretty happening little spot.”
Downtown had been pretty substantially abandoned. Now, it’s a pretty happening little spot.
— Delk of the Columbia Development Corp.
Adapting to ‘the college crowd’
Main Street shops are learning to cater to USC students and their parents.
At Mast General Store, at the corner of Main and Taylor streets, USC students and alums pace the creaking hardwood floors all day.
Mast’s 42 staffers, including about 15 USC students, work to keep the store stocked with trendy campus favorites – Birkenstock and Chaco sandals, True Grit pullovers and, well, anything with a Gamecock logo on it.
“We’ve changed some of our gear, trying to get certain merchandise we know will appeal to the college crowd,” said manager Jeremy Becraft, who has worked at the store since it opened in 2011.
Twice a year, Main Street merchants show USC’s tour guides around Main Street, hoping they will mention downtown businesses during visits to the university’s campus by prospective students.
At Uptown, Studstill says she leans on her student employees to help her identify campus trends – and to share the word about her shop at USC.
“I really rely on them to help me stay current, to stay relevant, to be a friendly face for students who shop with us,” said Studstill, who remembers shopping Main Street as a USC student in the 1970s. “They’ve got a lot of good ideas.”
‘Happening little spot’
USC’s growth increasingly will affect Main Street, observers say.
More student-focused housing projects are coming nearby, including a 684-bed tower under construction across Assembly Street from the State House complex.
“It’s going to be just as easy for them to come over to Persona Pizza and Uptown than to go to the Vista,” Kennell said.
Local and national restaurant chains also are looking at the district.
The North Carolina-based breakfast chain Famous Toastery plans to open next to Cantina 76, replacing Atlanta Bread Co. Idaho-based Pita Pit and Georgia-based Stoner’s Pizza Joint are coming to the Arcade Mall at Main and Washington streets.
“That’s a spinoff of having a younger crowd in the area,” Kennell said.
Meanwhile, Main Street restaurants and retailers hope to continue making loyal customers out of the hundreds of students, like Carter the rapper, that The Hub brings to their doorsteps.
“I would just come here for coffee because it was right across the street,” Carter says.
MEET ME ON MAIN
Much of Columbia’s Main Street has been transformed during the past few years with new restaurants, entertainment options and more residents. This week, The State newspaper is taking a look at what sparked the changes, how people are adapting to the new Main Street, and what might be next. We’re calling the series “Meet Me On Main Street” in honor of a former Main Street department store whose motto was: Meet Me At Tapp’s. Read Sunday’s two installments at thestate.com.
Monday: What role has the University of South Carolina’s growth played in Main Street’s renaissance?
Tuesday: Along with the new residents, businesses and entertainment venues, the homeless maintain a strong presence along Main Street and downtown. Plus, how big of a concern is crime on Main Street?
Wednesday: What are the biggest obstacles to Main Street’s future?
Thursday: Salley McInerney takes a look at Main Street’s history through the eyes of those who worked or lived there decades ago.
Sunday: The State met with several Main Street stakeholders to hear their thoughts about why the area has grown and what’s next.
Transforming Main Street
USC’s growth ...
Since 2000, the state’s flagship university has grown to 34,100 students from 23,700
Means more student housing is needed ...
Investors have spent or promised $560 million to build at least 16 new student housing developments, most in downtown
The largest being The Hub
The 850-bed Hub opened in 2014 in the former SCANA headquarters at 1426 Main St. “That’s a neighborhood, and they moved in, basically, overnight,” said one Main Street merchant