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Area mayors discuss flood recovery, growth management

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Four area mayors described how their towns are recovering from October’s floods while also managing unabated growth during the 2016 Power Breakfast Series hosted by the Columbia Regional Business Report.

Forest Acres mayor Frank Brunson, who called his city “ground zero” for flood damage, said community-led recovery effects have helped salvage all but a few of the 230-some properties affected.

“We have only a few that are not going to be able to recover — two or three businesses and only two or three homes,” Brunson said on Thursday. “We had a lot of folks that were confused. I think there was mass confusion about what you could rebuild. We finally got through all that.

“It was slow for us and there was a lot of frustration on the community’s part, (but) we are doing a remarkable job of recovering.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and Cayce Mayor Elise Partin address a crowd at the Power Breakfast Series  in Columbia (Photo/Melinda Waldrop)Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall said the flood displaced residents from nine homes, which have been replaced. He expressed disappointment that the town is still waiting to hear about any federal assistance to rebuild three major dams that failed during the flood.

Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin said the city continues to evaluate the best options for allocating federal relief money. He said the city has appropriated funds to dredge Lake Katherine, which saw significant damage to surrounding neighborhoods, and emphasized that the flood only exacerbated some existing problems.

“Across the Midlands, before Oct. 4, there was a need for affordable housing,” Benjamin said. “That need is that much greater post-Oct. 4.”

Citing the 100 rescues her city’s public safety teams helped make, Cayce Mayor Elise Partin said the flood gave neighboring areas a chance to demonstrate a cooperative spirit of teamwork.

“That’s the relationships that you can be proud of in the Midlands now,” she said. “We all do look out for each other that way. The territorialism isn’t there like it was in days of old, and that really matters for the health and the business of our entire region.”

That region is growing, a fact abundantly clear in Lexington, where MacDougall said recent annexations have added 200 acres to the town’s borders.

“Since 2000, the town of Lexington has grown over 88%,” MacDougall said. “We started out as a small, sleepy little town over on the lake. Now we’re a town of 21,000 people with a service number of 136,000 people a day.”

That growth means more traffic, and MacDougall discussed a solution being evaluated in Lexington: A smart traffic light control system that identifies congestion and responds by creating a “green light tunnel.” Five intersections have already seen congestion alleviation after being hooked up to the system, MacDougall said, and the town hopes to add 19 more of the town’s 36 intersections to the system by the end of the year.

Forest Acres is conducting traffic studies and considering a similar traffic control system, said Brunson, who received a chorus of yeses from the audience when he said, “I think one of the biggest problems that is key in our eyes is the traffic issue on Forest Drive.” That issue isn’t going away, with a $60 million mixed-use development planned at the former site of Cardinal Newman High School.

“We do know there are going to be some traffic considerations with that new project,” said Brunson, who stressed that Forest Acres must work with the city of Columbia to ensure that “that bottleneck isn’t just moved down the road.”

“The traffic issue has been building over there. No one’s really paid that much attention to it, and now we can’t keep our head in the sand any longer,” Brunson said. “We think we’ve got a pretty solid plan, but it’s going to be a long-term operation that’s going to consist of several components. Nothing’s going to happen all at once.”

Partin touted examples of growth in Cayce, including a new Courtyard by Marriott, while describing her vision of another hotel just across the Blossom Street bridge.

“Can’t you see a multistory hotel with a rooftop bar and restaurant that looks into the Gamecocks’ award-winning baseball stadium?” she said. “It will come into being if I say it enough.”

Benjamin said the 20-year buildout planned at Bull Street Commons is ahead of schedule, with new construction possibly beginning as soon as this summer. He also cited the continued growth of the Vista and the resurgence of Columbia’s Main Street while acknowledging the city needs to address its lack of parking with “more public-private discussion.” 

“We are the heart of a region that has incredible assets, and the only way we’re really going to grow is if we continue to do it together,” Benjamin said.

The Columbia Regional Business Report’s quarterly Power Breakfast series is held at the downtown Columbia Marriott.

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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