COLUMBIA IS no Charlotte. It’s no Atlanta. It’s no Charleston. It’s not even Greenville. How many times have we heard such laments over the years as critics and frustrated residents gave their assessments of our late-blooming capital city?
Of course, they were all right. Columbia has never been and won’t ever be any of those cities. It has been much slower to develop, isn’t a tourism mecca and can’t boast that it’s a banking center or home to an array of national corporate headquarters, things which helped the others develop their identities and grow.
But Columbia doesn’t have to be Charlotte or Atlanta or Greenville to become a thriving metropolitan city that competes with any rivals in the Southeast — or even beyond. What it needs is vision, leadership and private investors willing to spend their own money even as local governments and other public entities, led by the city of Columbia, provide reasonable incentives and regulations that foster quality, responsible development.
If you’ve been watching in recent years, then you know those pieces have been coming together.
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And if you’re among those who’ve been waiting for Columbia to come into its own, wait no longer. This city is about to explode with growth.
Say what you want about Mayor Steve Benjamin, but he — along with fellow council members and others — has been hawking a vision that has as its focus catapulting Columbia to the next level. The mayor has continually declared that Columbia has potential to become “the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city” in the Southeast.
For that to happen, Columbia must strengthen itself in almost every way imaginable: It must be well-governed, offer high-quality services and police protection, build a strong local economy fueled by highly-skilled workers, strengthen and protect historic and older neighborhoods, the list goes on.
But a city, a community, a region is no stronger than its core, something that Columbia governmental and business leaders understand and embrace. And it’s paying off in a big way.
The proposed Bull Street development, known as Columbia Common, will be anchored by a minor league baseball stadium and is expected to add thousands of new homes, stores and offices to the city core. A successful Columbia Common could transform the Midlands economy.
In USC, Columbia has a growing research university that has what consistently ranks as the nation’s top business school, has developed a high-profile sports, and is continuing its effort, although much slower than desired, to build an engine of its own — Innovista — aimed at boosting not just the region but our state’s economy.
And let’s not forget the university’s influence when it comes to the sudden influx of apartments and student housing. I can’t list them all, but some are: A 280-unit apartment complex and a mixed-use development — including a free-standing hotel — are planned for the former Kline Iron and Steel Co. site at the corner of Gervais and Huger streets. A private student housing project planned along Assembly, Pendleton and Park streets will feature 848 beds, private parking and street-level retail. An 878-bed student complex is being built by USC and Holder Properties behind the Carolina Coliseum.
Did I mention the Congaree Vista, the once blighted warehouse area that is now a bustling restaurant and entertainment district, which isn’t losing any steam? The Vista is about to get its first boutique hotel, a five-story, 108-room Aloft at the corner of Lady and Lincoln streets. A six-story Hyatt Place hotel is under construction across the street.
Columbia’s Main Street is as robust as it’s been in ages, thanks to developments such as the opening of the new luxury apartment complex called The Hub, which is home to about 850 young professionals and college students. Combined with the influx of restaurants, banks and other stores and ventures over the past five years or so, Columbia’s downtown has made a comeback and there is more to come.
And don’t expect all of that energy to remain just on lower Main. North Main Street is getting an overhaul and will be a focus as well, although we don’t yet know to what degree. We do know that a five-story development called Main Street Flats that could include 100 or more apartments or condominiums is being considered for the corner of North Main and Confederate Avenue.
Mayor Benjamin has always been focused on the need to strengthen the city’s core; making Columbia’s downtown relevant again was a cornerstone of his first term. As a matter of fact, he even staked his political future on whether downtown succeeds, saying “If we are not able to have revitalized Main Street, then we will have failed.”
I haven’t agreed with everything the mayor and council have done or how they’ve done it. For example, the city moved too fast in approving the Bull Street development deal and committed too much city money toward the large development as well as the proposed baseball stadium.
But let’s not miss what’s happening in little old Columbia: The city’s leadership (past and present), along with USC and various developers and business people have positioned this city to take off in a big way. If the pieces come together — and why can’t they? — the day will come when a host of other cities’ residents will lament the fact that their hometown is not Columbia.
Don’t look now, folks, but Columbia’s city core is well positioned to become the vibrant social, cultural and economic hub the Midlands needs to thrive. A strong, vibrant city core is key to sustaining a growing, thriving region.
While folks in Blythewood or Red Bank or the town of Lexington or Dutch Fork might not visit downtown Columbia often, their quality of life hinges on the strength of the city core. As goes Columbia, so goes the Midlands. While new residents and industry might locate outside of Columbia, many come to our area based on the health and vitality of the major city.
Despite the imaginary boundaries we’ve drawn, despite the river that runs through our community, this is one metropolitan area, one economic city with Columbia as its hub.
As things rev up in Columbia, expect some pleasant aftershocks around the region.
While many today deserve credit, don’t forget the groundwork laid by city officials, business people and residents in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. During those years, many cities the size of Columbia saw their downtowns literally crumble as buildings were condemned, burned out and abandoned. They battled high unemployment, a high poverty rate that left poor people socially and economically isolated and a fleeing middle class.
Columbia wasn’t immune to those problems, but city officials (think of mayors Kirkman Finlay, Patton Adams and Bob Coble and the many council members who served with them) wouldn’t allow it to go into the tank. They instituted innovative programs to help bring homeowners back to the city and fortify existing neighborhoods, including reviving areas like Read Street by providing single-family homes. More attention was placed on developing the riverfront and improving downtown. And, yes, transforming the Vista.
All to preserve a Columbia that so many thought never would amount to much for such a time as this.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.