By Michaela Mitchell
Edited by Jenna Kepley
Lexington still has the small-town feel – a warm smile when you eat at the locally owned Main Street Cafe & Grill, have your oil changed by the family-run L.R. Hook & Tire or sip on a freshly brewed cup of Jamestown Coffee.
But Lexington is leaving behind the "small" as one of South Carolina's boomtowns. Its population has almost doubled in the past decade as tendrils of development grow toward it from Columbia while it remains the center of a county that consistently has one of the state's lowest unemployment rates.
Lexington, a little over 10 miles west of Columbia along Lake Murray, has long had a reputation for good schools, a small-town feel and a tight-knit community.
Now, it's dealing with the issues that come with being a booming suburb: a struggling downtown as shoppers flock to new retail centers along U.S. 378 and U.S. 1 and homeowners move to ever-expanding developments outside city limits, the need to manage growth, and the desire to still keep that small-town feel.
In a decade, Lexington's population grew more than 80 percent to 17,870 residents in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
"Lexington needs to get in front of the growth and start planning for the growth instead of waiting for it to take over," said Gov. Nikki Haley, whose family home is in Lexington. "Many fast-growing areas are facing this problem."
Mayor Randy Halfacre has a vision to maintain Lexington's quality of life by planning for more growth and working through it. Central to that is dealing with traffic.
Halfacre, citing state Transportation Department statistics, says that each week day more than a fifth of Lexington County's 244,508 registered cars drive through three intersections in the heart of town: Park Road and West Main Street; where Old Chapin Road, Columbia Avenue (U.S. 378) and West Main Street (U.S. 1) intersect; and Columbia Avenue and Butler Street.
Halfacre said the first priority is to improve the three intersections, partly by providing constant turn lanes. The improvements should improve traffic flow in and around the town up to 30 percent, according to the Transportation Department. Construction is expected to start late this year.
Main Street Cafe & Grill: ‘Greek, Unique' element of Lexington
In the middle of downtown, a block away from the mayor's office, between some law offices and across from an old BB&T bank branch, the fragrant smell of Greek dishes like Souvlaki and Gyros wafts from Main Street Cafe & Grill.
In 1998, George Trifos and his sister, Nitsa, were visiting from Canada with their parents and ended up on Main Street after getting lost. A "For Lease" sign on a vacant business stopped them, and the plans for Main Street Cafe & Grill were born.
Their uncle, Angelo Trifos, owns Devine Foods in Columbia, so George and Nitsa thought they would have success opening a similar restaurant in Lexington.
Main Street Cafe & Grill started as a one-room restaurant, but now has a bar and dance floor as well. The staff bustles around making sure customers are enjoying their visit.
"We have a really good waitstaff," Nitsa said. "We're like family."
Several of the surrounding buildings are vacant, but there is a new men's clothing store several stores down as well as Mae's women's clothing store and Cho On Main, a hair salon.
Trifos hopes more businesses come to Main Street because they help bring life to the area. She said she hasn't considered relocating because the restaurant is established downtown.
Halfacre said no matter how the town expands, there needs to be a downtown presence.
"People still want a gathering place they can go to, and generally that's a main street," he said.
‘Fits to a tee' for developer John Roof
John Roof, 59, is known for working behind the scenes in Lexington as a real estate investor and developer. He grew up about 45 minutes away in Batesburg-Leesville but has lived in Lexington since 1993 because "Lexington fits to a tee."
Roof starts his mornings reading the newspaper with a view of Lake Murray, about five miles from downtown. He said he hardly ever goes a day without looking at properties, "most of them foreclosures." Not everyone in Lexington is experiencing the area's good fortune.
Still, Roof said he's seen Lexington go from a small town to a booming community and expects it to continue.
Residential development will increase in the town as the new Amazon distribution plant in Cayce and Florida-based Nephron Pharmaceuticals, which is building a plant nearby, bring jobs to the county, Roof said.
"What's good for Lexington County is good for the town of Lexington and vice-versa," he said.
Deep Lexington Roots
As a seventh-generation descendant of the Corley family, Claudette Holliday, 66, has roots in Lexington that go back to its beginnings in the 1690s.
Holliday has written two books about Lexington and writes "Lexington Yesterday," a weekly history column in the Lexington Chronicle and Dispatch News.
"The Lexington of today is much different than the one I remember as a child, but I feel generations are bridges from one era to another, creating something we call heritage," Holliday said.
She raised her four children in Lexington and retired in 2007 from the Department of Social Services where she was a paralegal aide. She still lives in Lexington, and her family is close by, which is something she says she appreciates as she grows older. She spends her days keeping her granddaughter, writing, volunteering with the Friends of the Lexington County Museum and dabbling in genealogy.
She said Lexington's main problem is the traffic, which Holliday said can be remedied by civic planning that controls growth and by maintaining the quality of the town.
Holliday said growing a town is like a business; sometimes it flourishes and other times it withers.
"Lexington has flourished and will continue to flourish," she said. "I feel my part in its progress has been to let our citizens know about Lexington's history."
Maintaining schools' quality
Jeff Salters, chief operating officer for Lexington District 1, has seen the good and the bad of a growing school district firsthand.
The district now has over 22,000 students, up from 19,705 seven years ago. It has had two successful bond referendums and built a number of new schools, but it also has over 130 portable classrooms.
"While success and good test scores and all that stuff are good, it brings more people into the district, and that can be a challenge." Salters said. "We just can't, right now, build schools fast enough to keep all our students in permanent classrooms."
The district has a $166.7 million yearly budget. But much of that comes from the state now that the Legislature has prohibited using property taxes for school operations. The Legislature promised to make that up with sales tax revenue – just before the Great Recession hit.
"It's no secret that we're funded at levels that we were funded at in the late ‘90s right now." Salters said.
He said quality education is one of the main economic drivers in the community – it generates business. He expects the district to continue to grow.
"We have a lot of community support and community involvement. We really appreciate and welcome that support and involvement," Salters said. "We wouldn't survive without the people we serve."