Warren Bolton

Bolton: Light of hope shining on North Columbia

A NEW and potentially powerful voice for change is emerging in North Columbia.

Area businesses have determined they won't sit back any longer and watch as other areas grow and prosper while their long-neglected community struggles to overcome a sluggish economy, elevated crime rates and various social ills.

They've banded together to support one another as well as promote and advocate for their district. In short, North Columbia isn't going to sit still and allow things to be done to it any more.

Spurred by an energetic leader, business owners have established the North Columbia Business Association, which they believe will be a catalyst for growth and development.

There hasn't been a collective business voice in North Columbia in decades, during which time the area saw serious decline. Members of the new association are adamant about working to grow their businesses, foster the development of others and ensure that their area gets what it deserves, especially when it comes to holding the city's feet to the fire.

"There's strength in unity," attorney Donald Gist told members and others at a reception that served as a coming-out-party of sorts for the association. Mr. Gist's law office is located in the area.

Members say chairwoman Sabrina Odom, whose family operates North Main Deli, is the driving force behind the association. She's worked tirelessly to bring businesses into the fold and to organize the group, they said.

"I have a passion for North Columbia," Ms. Odom said. "North Columbia has been in the dark too long, and we're going to come back into the light."

Her words echoed a theme that's developed as the organization has come together. As I talked with members of the group at the reception, many used words such as "awakening" and "resurgence" in talking about the organization's potential impact.

The association was established in April 2008, but had been relatively low-key until recently. "Our purpose is to invigorate the North Columbia business landscape by creating an environment where local business owners and corporations can meet to solve problems and explore business opportunities," according to the association's pamphlet. Members range from bankers and consultants to attorneys and real estate professionals to restaurateurs and retailers.

The group makes its public debut at a key time in the life of the city: City elections, including the selection of a new mayor, will be held in April. Although the group is determined to be nonpartisan, there's no doubt mayoral and council candidates will be paying attention to what these business people say. The group entered last week's reception with 40 business members, and several more signed up that evening.

Group members I talked with rattled off a litany of concerns with the city, including:

- Some city requirements and processes stifle new business development.

- A streetscaping project that would lure new businesses has been changed to the detriment of the area. The city's decision to begin at one end of North Main and then leapfrog a section - leaving it drab and unattractive - in order to make improvements further up doesn't add up to them. While the city says there isn't enough money and the portion of the street near Fairfield Road is a higher priority, members remember a day when money was available to improve North Main in its entirety. Somehow, that money has disappeared.

- The impact of a tax increment financing district proposed for the area that would be used to spur development isn't yet clear. The association is asking questions and is likely to come out with a position on the issue.

- Historically, the city's response to crime as it relates to businesses, as well as in neighborhoods, hasn't been adequate.

The importance of the business community coming together as a force for change is immeasurable. The North Columbia area long has had civic and community leaders who've spoken out and sought to get help from the city in various ways. There have been improvements, but only limited. The additional voice of community business people could be a difference maker.

Mr. Gist told a story about how some association members intervened with the city recently on behalf of a new business attempting to locate in North Columbia. Because of that, a business that otherwise would have located in Lexington County now will call North Columbia home.

While it's important to get necessary help from the city, the most important thing is for people to determine they're going to make their community better whether anyone else helps or not. That's what these North Columbia businesses have dared to do.

"We have people who've had business here forever," Ms. Odom said. "People are waiting just to see a little light."

The brightness of that light doesn't hinge on what the city might do but on what the North Columbia Business Association will do.