Columbia builds on strong urban core

By C. Grant Jackson

Senior Vice President/Community Development

Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce

A strong urban core makes for a strong region. When the core is strong, especially economically, everything pushes outward, and downtown Columbia is a strong urban core that is getting even stronger.

For those who say why can’t Columbia be more like Greenville, I’m going to suggest that it may not be too long before Greenville wants to be more like Columbia. And if you don’t believe that, I’m also going to suggest that you come downtown and just open your eyes.

Downtown Columbia, South Carolina’s Main Street, has a buzz unlike anything seen in decades. Don’t try to get a table at the Oak Table, the new restaurant in the Tower at Main & Gervais, without a reservation. And that’s for lunch.

Much of the credit for the reinvigoration of downtown goes to the collaborative efforts of organizations such as the City Center Partnership, whose Yellow-Shirt Ambassadors have become a symbol of the new attitude about downtown Columbia. Downtown is now the place to be.

Consider these recent developments:

Agape Senior and Agape Hospice Inc., a major regional provider of senior health care services, announced a week ago that it will take several buildings in the 1600 block of Main Street and create a new headquarters, plus store-front retail associated with the senior market. About 100 jobs will be coming downtown as Agape consolidates its corporate operations. This continues a transformation begun by Mast General Store and the Nickelodeon Theatre on the other side of the street.

AgFirst Farm Credit Bank purchased the Bank of America Plaza at Main and Richland streets. When the bank moves its 380 employees, the tower will be fully occupied and the vacancy rate for Class “A” space downtown will drop to 8.7%, the lowest in 20 years, according to David Lockwood of Colliers International.

Late last month, Duck Creek Technologies, which was acquired by business-services giant Accenture, left the Carolina Research Park, and moved into 1441 Main St. That’s the Wells Fargo building in the heart of downtown. The company brought with it some 100 employees and an expectation that Accenture will continue to grow its Columbia presence.

AllSouth Federal Credit Union held a ground-breaking Nov. 14 for a 60,000 square foot headquarters at Elmwood Avenue and Gadsden Street. Just on the periphery of the central business district, the building will create a stunning visual gateway into the city off I-126. About 100 jobs will come downtown and another 12-15 are expected to be added.

Hotelier Rick Patel is renovating the First National Bank/Republic National Bank building at 1208 Washington St. into The Sheraton Convention Center. Patel transformed the Palmetto Building across the street, at 1400 Main St., into a boutique Sheraton hotel, boasting some of the city’s most spectacular downtown views from its roof-top bar.

Several other large downtown commercial projects are standing in the wings ready to be announced. But the buzz about our urban core is also about the quality of life and the people who have returned to Main Street.

People are living downtown and the demand for housing continues strong. The latest residential project is The Palms on Main. Developer Ben Arnold transformed the old Governor’s House Hotel at Main and Lady streets into a 54-unit urban apartment complex for young professionals. The Palms is now full as are all other apartments and condos in the central business district.

But more is on the way. When utility giant SCANA left downtown for a corporate complex in Cayce, the naysayers declared, prematurely, the death of downtown, as the company took about 900 jobs with it. For a while things were a bit rough as the economy took a nose dive. But we have more than replaced the jobs that SCANA took with it, and the empty building that once housed SCANA is set to become downtown’s newest residence as a plan progresses to transform it into housing for 800 students.

Other new downtown housing is also rumored to be coming. That will put an even greater mass of people downtown creating an even greater demand for goods and services and opening up even more business opportunities, joining several new small retailers that have already opened on Main Street.

Downtown continues to boast an array of amenities that will draw more and more people.

The latest draw is the seasonal ice rink that the city opened last week on Boyd Plaza in front of the Columbia Museum of Art. The rink is expected to remain up through the holidays.

Soda City, formerly the All-Local Farmers’ Market on Whaley, opened to great crowds on Saturday morning in the 1500 block of Main Street. Several Main Street merchants have altered their hours to take advantage and others are sure to follow.

Our urban core is strong and getting stronger, and that matters.

C. Grant Jackson is senior vice president/community development for the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at (803) 733-2513 or at gjackson@columbiachamber.com

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