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New owner aims to restore Arcade’s luster

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arcade balcony web
The century-old Arcade on Main Street originally was an open-air mall with retail shops and offices. (Photos/Chuck Crumbo)

By C. Grant Jackson
Published Sept. 23, 2015
(From Sept. 14 issue of Columbia Regional Business Report)

Veteran retail developer Ron Swinson wants to bring energy back to Columbia’s historic downtown Arcade. To do that he plans to restore the historic building, reopen the basement that once housed the Columbia Down Under entertainment venue, and recruit new retail and office tenants.

Swinson, a former principal of CBRE in Columbia, bought the building in July through his company Peach Properties for a little over $1 million. He expects total investment in the project to be around $2.5 million. Partners in the venture include his son, Ross Swinson, and son-in-law Brad Shelf.

ron and ross swinson web
The new owner, right, Ron Swinson, and his son, Ross, property manager, plan to restore the building and re-open Columbia Down Under.
“Our goal, to the extent it is economically feasible, is to restore the entire building to pretty close to what we feel and think, and the pictures show, is original,” Swinson said. “I’ve always liked the Arcade. It is sort of this hidden gem on Main Street that just seems to have gotten overlooked,” Swinson said. “We are trying to change the energy in the Arcade for everyone.”

In recent years, the Arcade, a turn of the century shopping mall, has been home to a number of local artists’ studios, a handful of retailers and offices as well as Swanson’s Deli, a local sandwich shop. While Swinson said he is willing to work with any of the current tenants to remain, he knows the mix will change. Some of the artists have already begun to move out.

“We have had a significant amount of interest from smaller tenants, some in food service, different little niches that would be well suited for the Arcade’s smaller retail spaces,” Swinson said. “We don’t have anyone signed up, but we are talking to a number of small businesses.” The goal is to put more retail on the first floor, Swinson added.

The upstairs, he believes, will continue to be more office oriented, “but a lot of folks up there would be more of the creative types,” such as advertising agencies. And he expects at least some of the artists to stay. Blue Sky, the Columbia artist well known for his public installations around the city, has a studio in the Arcade, and Swinson expects him to stay.

Swanson’s Deli also is almost certain to stay. “They have become in my opinion a little bit of an institution downtown in a relatively short amount of time,” Swinson said. Swanson’s opened in the Arcade seven years ago, and the deli has no plans to leave, said general manager Steven Leno, who is excited about having Swinson own the building. “We both want to increase foot traffic and bring businesses that are more of a draw into the building,” Leno said. He noted that while it has been nice having artist studios in the building the artists don’t generate much foot traffic.

‘Opportunity for cool things’

D.R. Granger, general manager of Circa 1332, one of the Arcade’s newest retailers, also is excited about the ownership change. Circa is an outgrowth of Granger Owings clothing directly across Main from the Arcade. Granger thinks Swinson will be great for downtown and that the Arcade could become one of the hotspots for the state. “It’s an opportunity for some really cool things. People downtown need to get excited and support it.”

Matt Kennell, president and CEO of the Center City Partnership, is already excited about the Arcade’s prospects. “The historic Arcade is an iconic part of Columbia’s Main Street whose time has now come because of the intense development surrounding it,” Kennell said. “It is the perfect time to invest and bring back the Arcade as a central focal point on Main Street, taking advantage of its unique character and outstanding location. The return of this building to its former glory will take the energy that now exists on Main to new levels of intensity and success,” Kennell said.

One of Swinson’s first efforts will be to clean up the Arcade’s basement which was turned into Columbia Down Under, an entertainment venue, in the early 1970s.

Columbia Down Under only lasted a couple of years and the basement basically became a storage area. Cleanup is expected to start this month. “It looks like some of the stuff has been down there 20 years. So if it is not nailed down it is going to be cleaned up in the next few weeks so that we can get a little better handle on what needs to happen downstairs,” Swinson said. “Our goal is to rehabilitate the basement.”

Swinson thinks the basement could again become a venue for hospitality businesses, such as a wine cellar, wine restaurant or brew pub. “I have some ideas on what needs to be down there. Now whether the people that own those businesses agree with me is another question.”

The Equitable Arcade, built in 1912 by the Equitable Real Estate Co., runs from Main Street mid block between Lady and Washington streets in a “L” shape to mid block on Washington between Main and Sumter streets.

Restoration on tap

arcade basement web
Remnants of Columbia Down Under that are still in the basement include a mannequin, old TVs, and what appears to be some semblance of a drawbridge.
Declared “One of the Handsomest Buildings in the World” on its opening in a headline in The State newspaper, the Arcade, and others likes it around the country, was an indoor shopping mall that included stores and restaurants. Built at a cost of $150,000, according to old newspaper reports, the Arcade originally had 16 retail spaces on the ground floor facing the indoor arcade and 34 office spaces on the second floor. The building has a total of about 51,000 square feet of enclosed space on two floors and the basement.

The Arcade was designed by New York architect James Brite and is believed to be the first fire-proof building constructed in Columbia. Built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, the interior is covered with decorative ceramic tiles and marble. The Arcade floor is also the original tile. The Arcade also was originally open to the sky, but a roof was added later.

“Because it’s a historic building, we are trying to move deliberately, which also means slowly and making sure that what we do is proper and correct historically,” Swinson said. He doesn’t expect any construction to get under way until November at the earliest, and the Arcade will remain open during the restoration process.

Joel McCreary of McCreary/Snow Architects is handling the historic preservation effort. The S.C. Department of Archives will oversee the restoration of the building and will make recommendations to the National Park Service which has the ultimate say on the particulars of the rehabilitation since the Arcade is a National Register property. Historic Columbia Foundation will hold a Preservation Easement on the property to ensure the preservation of the building now and into the future and by any subsequent owners.

One major initial undertaking is just cleaning several decades of accumulated dirt and grime from the architectural features. McCreary also must deal with alterations to the building that were made to accommodate modern infrastructure, such as air conditioning, and changes that came especially with the development of the basement.

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