By Matt Long
Columbia officials and business leaders are keeping an eye on a vacant building at the corner of Taylor and Main Streets in downtown Columbia. The former site of Lourie's Department Store may not be empty much longer. Renovations will begin this month for a new retailer that many hope will energize a struggling part of downtown.
The Mast General Store is a regional chain that markets itself as a traditional general store. It would be the first new major retail chain along Main Street in recent memory, and comes as the city completes a six year, $30 million streetscaping project.
Matt Kennell is President and CEO of the City Center Partnership, a non-profit advocacy group that markets downtown Columbia's business district. He believes Mast's arrival is good news for downtown.
"That's a major change for Main Street," Kennell said "I think there are many people five years ago that said you would never… that would never happen."
Kennell hopes Mast will act as a catalyst for future businesses to move onto Main Street, where "For Sale" signs are prominent north of Hampton Street.
Not everyone is so confident about Columbia's latest revitalization project. Just a few doors south of Taylor Street sits Drake's Duck-In, a staple among Columbia restaurants for decades. Owner Steve Rowland has frequently been on the wrong end of city planners' development projects. He has twice had his property on Main Street condemned through eminent domain. Once it was for the construction of the Palmetto Center, and his second property was condemned to build the Columbia Museum of Art.
"The numbers I had in that property were $1.29 million... and the city condemned us for $825,000," Rowland complained. "I'm actually the biggest donor, in my opinion, to the Art Museum. I don't have my name on a plaque or anything over there, but I'm actually the biggest donor."
Rowland also said the latest street improvements were made without giving thought to Main Street companies. He says the construction hurt his business.
"Eight months and $220,000 worth of (lost) revenue. That didn't matter to them," he said. "All they could say to me was, ‘Well, don't you think that it's worth it, Steve? That's it's going to be better for everybody?' Well, what good is that if you put people out of business? How can that be good for me?"
Kennell defends the project, saying the finished product made the area appealing to larger tenants, such as First Citizens Bank and NBSC. Both banks recently moved into new buildings along Main Street.
"They were very well aware of the streetscape and the investment the city was making in beautifying the area before they built their $50, $60, $70 million office towers, Kennell said. "You simply would not have seen that investment, I don't believe, without the streetscaping."
The downtown occupancy rate has dropped by nearly 10 percent in the past two years. Much of the loss was due to electric utility SCANA's recent move from Main Street to Cayce. The irony of the building that once displaced his restaurant now sitting empty is not lost on Rowland.
"It's unforgivable that they let (SCANA) get away," he said.
Further down Main Street, Vaughn Granger runs Granger-Owings Clothiers, an upscale men's clothing store. He believes any future economic development downtown requires retail.
"I think the balance of the hotel, the restaurant, and the retail is important," Granger said, "It's just possibly not as balanced as it should be right now."
"Columbia doesn't need another bank. It doesn't need another law firm... it needs some retail," Rowland said. "There's no retail left out here. Nothing to speak of."
But can Mast General Store live up to the hype? Mast does have a history of success, helping revive urban centers in cities like Greenville and Asheville. Rowland believes the store's success will be critical for Main Street's future.
"I would do everything in my power to get Mast General Store to not back off," he said. "(They need) to come to Columbia and be the entity like Greenville, South Carolina, has."
Mast has eight locations across the Carolinas and Tennessee. It hopes to open its Columbia store in the summer of 2011.