Columbians have great reason to be proud of their Main Street. Working together, we have accomplished what many said was impossible: We have made our downtown a true destination. Main Street no longer shuts down at 5 p.m. but remains alive and vibrant with a world-class museum, art galleries, restaurants, a fantastic independent movie theater, cafes, bars and retailers all now bustling to meet the needs of tourists, Midlands citizens and, yes, thousands of downtown residents.
With a strong and strategic combination of attracting residential living and new businesses and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit and unabashed support of arts and culture, we’ve been able to promote new commercial construction and push private-sector investment into the preservation of our historic treasures. By keeping a keen eye on public safety and solid urban design, we are improving our quality of life and transforming into a healthier, multimodal, walkable and bikeable community. Our focus on sustainability and healthy foods has led to one of the nation’s most dynamic farmer and artisan markets and an enviable foodie culture. All on our Main Street.
I’ll never forget the ribbon cutting at Tapp’s Art Center in 2011, only a few months after I took office as mayor. “If we’re not able to revitalize Main Street,” I said, “I will have failed as mayor.” A photographer from a local TV station laughed as my staff looked at me in sheer disbelief. How could I make such a promise?
But I knew our potential. I was also had an unshakable faith that Columbia could grow into the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city in America.
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Understanding that humans are attracted to beautiful, connected pedestrian experiences, we made an investment in restoring our historic buildings, and with $425,000 in federal grants, the city partnered with local businesses to spur a rapid reinvestment in the facades of these older buildings to help attract more customers. Businesses invested an additional $5.7 million into their buildings — an immediate return of 13 to 1. After seeing such a large return on investment, we replicated the program on North Main Street and Two Notch Road.
Emile Defelice’s All Local Farmers Market had a strong and devoted following on Whaley Street, and I wanted to bring that energy downtown. After significant changes to our ordinances, working through the concerns of downtown retailers, a little arm twisting and some prayer, Soda City launched as a Main Street farmers’ market and has introduced hundreds of thousands of believers to the beauty and authenticity of our Main Street while delivering tens of millions of dollars in sales to the small businesses who show up every week, rain, sleet, snow or hail.
We watch as more than 1,000 college students hurry to class by cutting through the State House grounds from their apartments in the Hub, the Lofts at Louries or the Barringer Building, and we forget that we were met with active opposition and derision when we proposed converting the empty 450,000-square-foot former SCANA headquarters into privately owned student housing. Core Campus delivered a high-quality product, and it was fully leased before the doors were opened for the fall 2014 semester. Hundreds of millions of dollars in private student housing investment has followed.
Main Street is a true testament to what we can do, together, to make our visions come true.
Hotels that once sat empty on New Year’s Eve have hosted hundreds of thousands of revelers from more than 40 states and numerous countries since we launched the Famously Hot New Year celebration. Consistent investment in the arts has helped to yield two National Medals for Museum & Library Services awards for the Columbia Museum of Art and Richland Library in addition to an enviable creative community that has an annual economic impact of almost $65 million.
Today, Main Street is a thriving district of restaurants, public and private offices, housing and entertainment with a total property assessment of nearly $300 million. Across town, we’ve announced more than $1.5 billion in new investment, new waterfront living at CanalSide Lofts, a rescued and renovated Palmetto Compress, hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Five Points and Bull Street and more restaurants in the Vista and on Main Street alone than you’ll find in beautiful downtown Greenville.
It’s a place where you’ll see folks still walking around at 10 on a Wednesday evening. A place that has a life of its own with vendors on street corners, murals popping with color on side streets and a growing young professional population.
Main Street is a true testament to what we can do, together, to make our visions come true. Every citizen is economically and emotionally tied to our downtown. When Main Street is alive, our city is alive.
Mr. Benjamin is Columbia’s mayor; contact him at email@example.com..