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Pair of renaissances ongoing across the river

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Festival-goers mill about during Art on State last month, perusing the wares of local artists and merchants. (Photo/City of West Columbia)

The sun is shining on a recent afternoon in Cayce, but it’s not yet the kind of famous Columbia hot that coats the air and crosses the river.

The door to the coffee shop opens and the smiles start. Elise Partin is here for a scheduled meeting, but on her way to purchase her kombucha, Partin, in her 13th year as Cayce mayor, has hands to shake and news to catch up on.

It’s a scene played out wherever Partin goes in this city of 13,600 across the Blossom Street bridge from the S.C. Capitol. She’s recognized by all and always spares a moment to talk.

“She’s such a relater,” said Meghan Hickman, executive director of
EngenuitySC, the nonprofit economic development organization whose board Partin chairs. “She’s so compelling one-and-one and in a small group. She has a way of making you feel like you’re the only person in the room.”

Partin’s leadership style has produced more than a friendly atmosphere. Piecewise Coffee Co. on State Street is one of eight new businesses that have opened in Cayce’s downtown River Arts District in the last four years. The district, connected to the Congaree’s Riverwalk by bright signage, is also home to four new murals, four art buildings and two new sculptures.

One of the new businesses lured to the area was public relations firm MPA Strategies, which recently relocated to the River Arts District from downtown Columbia.

“In addition to the beautiful backdrop of original works of art from the Cayce Arts Guild members along the office walls, I also have the Riverwalk just outside my office, and we can walk down the street to a coffee shop, restaurants, art galleries, a brewery and distillery,” CEO Ashley Hunter said in an email. “It is the perfect place for both the members of our public relations team and all of our clients.”

Population projections forecast another 1,800 residents by 2030, according to numbers provided by the city. The population of ages 25-34 has grown by 51% in the last five years, while the number of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 47%.

“It was a city I had been watching and inspired by,” said Tracy Hegler, the former director of community planning and development for Richland County who became Cayce’s city manager in 2018. “It was just experiencing some really cool growth, smart growth, well-planned and strategic growth. You could just tell that there was vision, and that vision was being enacted.”

Partin honed her vision for her city at the Mayors Institute for City Design in 2015, emerging with development blueprints such as the arts district overlay that created pedestrian- and bike-friendly travel in the area, relaxed signage regulations and helped created live/work opportunities in the former city center.

“This is the original heart of our city,” Partin said. “It’s the original downtown. It’s where our first city hall was. It’s where people remember walking to the movie theater and the men’s clothing store. It’s got great bones, and it’s so fun to see it come back and have its second life.”

Cayce Mayor Elise Partin speaks in front of a mural in the city's River Arts District. (Photo/MPA Strategies)One of the first events spawned by the 2015 municipal conference was the Soiree on State, which debuted in 2017 and was attended by more than 1,500 people who were treated to live music, local art and food trucks. The city partnered with The Avenues Neighborhood Assocation to give the Cayce Festival of the Arts a fresh, attention-getting makeover.

“I think one of my strengths is connecting people,” Partin said. “I’ve done it my whole life. It doesn’t have anything to do with being mayor. It has to do with going, ‘Hey, you would like so-and-so. We should all get together.’ ”

Partin comes by that talent honestly.

“My mother worked for Mayor (Joe) Riley in Charleston,” Partin said. “She was his director of media relations almost my entire life, and so I knew as a young person that sidewalks and parks didn’t just happen. Somebody had to think those through. My husband says that on our first date I said that I was going to be mayor. I don’t recall that, but he says I did, and he usually has the better memory.”

Partin was first spurred to political participation by the contentious rezoning and eventual annexation of a large area development, diving into grassroots action to see how she could help.

“That’s, I think, not uncommon for women,” she said. “They see an issue and they go, ‘Ah, I want to step up and solve that,’ for women that wind up in elected office. And here we are 13 years later.”

Partin’s tenure has also seen development along Knox Abbott Drive, Cayce’s main throughfare that funnels many travelers to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport and is home to a several new businesses including a Starbucks that opened last year and an East Bay Deli opening next month. Streetscaping projects have spruced up Knox Abbott between the Blossom Street bridge and 12th Street, and public spaces such as Guignard Park have also been the target of thoughtful improvements including a permanent ping-pong table that increase the city’s recreation opportunities.

“We’ve set the tone really that customer service is what we do,” Partin said. “We don’t make widgets. Our team really does that. That’s who our people are. That’s the culture that we’ve set. That matters to us.”

Partin’s administration also oversaw the transformation of a former city recycling plant into Steel Hands Brewing as well as spearheaded a huge civic undertaking. In 2017, the city embarked on an ambitious project to replace 75% of its aging waterlines, establishing a 24-hour hotline staffed by consultants to inform residents of the plan and address any concerns. City staffers took before-and-after photos of affected backyards to be sure everything was put back in place.

“That’s the kind of thing that the city is very strategic about,” Hegler said. “We didn’t accept that that’s the state of our infrastructure.”

Cayce also recently conducted a housing study to help ensure its diverse housing stock remains available to both the young professionals flocking to town and the 60% of residents who have called the city home for 20 or more years.

“We all focus, as we should, on the federal level and what that means to our country, but if you want to talk about your daily quality of life, it’s what happens right here,” Partin said. “It’s that sense of do you feel safe? Do you have great places to be able to go and sit and enjoy? Can you walk to school? It’s that quality of life that’s affected on the municipal level, and that’s really powerful.”

With one of the lowest tax bases in the region, Cayce also has to get creative about funding such projects — another area where Partin puts her connections to use.

“She’s a learner. She really wants to understand. She wants context, she wants details,” Hickman said. “Good leaders craft a vision that others can buy into. That’s what I think is so compelling about her, is people believe in her, and in doing so, adopt her vision.”

Partin’s future priorities include finding ways to extend State Street’s success into other areas of town and securing tenants for the city’s remaining vacant buildings. Also on the infrastructure horizon is a mixed-use development, set to break ground soon, at the intersection of 12th Street and Interstate 77.

But although she’s often asked about it, Partin’s plans don’t seem to include running for higher office.

“We are too polarized in this country right now, and I am thankful that my position is nonpartisan and I have never declared a party,” she said. “I’m making a difference here, and I like that.”

Quest for West

When Joseph Dickey was looking for a place to move his law downtown Columbia office and to raise his family, he researched many locations, even several outside of his native South Carolina.

Then he realized that what he sought was just across the river.

“In West Columbia, I feel like it’s more of a community,” Dickey said. “We all look out for each other. I know the people I deal with. I know the people I see on the street.”

Dickey didn’t stop at relocating his business to West Columbia. In November 2019, he was elected to city council.

“I wanted to get involved, to hopefully be an asset to my community, a place that I love and reside in,” he said. “If there’s something I can do to help or offer some assistance to serve, I wanted to do it.”

That’s the attitude the city of 17,600 strives to project to residents both brand-new and long-term as its growth spurt continues. In 2020, West Columbia issued 154 new business licenses, and has issued 127 from January to April 2021.

“West Columbia has low taxes, low utility rates, a low cost of doing business in the city, and first-rate services,” Brian Carter, city administrator, said in an  email. “Business leaders from across the region have taken notice of our ease of doing business and our ability to say ‘yes’ to new and innovative ideas. ... With the construction of public infrastructure, such as parking, new utility lines, and vibrant public spaces, and the private investment that follows, we continue to demonstrate that we know how to lay the groundwork and then get out of the way so that businesses can do what they do best: Grow their business.”

In 2020, West Columbia issued 154 new business licenses, and has issued 127 from January to April 2021. (Photo/Melinda Waldrop)A drive across the Gervais Street bridge shows the fruits of that focus. West Columbia’s State Street is home to an assortment of businesses and restaurants and will soon welcome D’s Wings, relocating from Cayce. Savage Craft Ale Works opened its expansive new facility earlier this year and regularly draws hordes of cars to the public parking available around the city’s interactive art park.

As Gervais becomes Meeting Street, business booms at WECO Bottle and Biergarten, where patrons pack the outdoor patio that opened last year. Primal Gourmet kitchen and market has also weathered the pandemic well, while a Class A office building at 508 Meeting St. conceived by West Columbia developer Joe Taylor now houses law firm D’Alberto, Graham & Grimsley, which relocated from Columbia last July.  

“You’ve got a very business-friendly mayor, city administrator and city council over here,” said Taylor, also the driving force behind St. Anns Alley, a community of 34 single-family residences in West Columbia’s River District now in its second phase of development. “They’re very responsive to getting building permits. They spend their time telling you what you can do versus what you can’t do.”

Taylor cites zoning rules that don’t require on-site parking for commercial businesses zoned C1 in West Columbia and lauded the city’s investment in a 100-space parking garage near the mixed-use Brookland Development that he said “set a quality appearance standard for this area.”

“Everybody that owned a building that had a parking area that didn’t look as good paid to make theirs look as good as the city,” he said. “And so now you’ve got the shining appearance example set by the city, and everybody began to modernize and improve their buildings. Over here, you don’t have to go get permission from the city of West Columbia if you want to repaint your building. It’s easier to make things look better, and that’s what’s happened.”

Areas remain with visible room for improvement, notably the Capital Square Shopping Center that faces the House of Raeford chicken processing plant and is largely vacant save for an Army/Navy store and a discount retailer. Talk has swirled of residential development there like the FLOW Townhomes across Sunset Boulevard and possibly a hotel, but there are no official plans as of yet.

“We’ve heard all the same things that everybody else has heard,” said Anna Huffman, West Columbia communications and technology director. “I know that the owner of the property is looking for developers to develop it. I know developers that have plans. I haven’t seen any of the plans. I’ve heard that it’s mixed use, possibly a hotel, possibly a grocery store, but nothing’s set in stone at all. Obviously, if that happens, we would be extra, extra excited to have that become another spot that people can make a destination for West Columbia.”

The city takes care to control future development through its zoning and planning boards, Huffman said, and through annual adherence by city council to action items in a 2018 revitalization study. “They’re making sure that there’s a focus and there are goals and priorities created each year, specifically for that budget year,” she said.

Huffman, who has lived in West Columbia since 2013 and been working with the city since 2003, has enjoyed witnessing the transformation of the area during that time. A recent highlight, she said, was the Art on State festival that drew area musicians, artisans and retailers eager to showcase West Columbia’s wares to patrons strolling by on a late spring evening.

“The growth has been amazing, awesome to see,” she said. “The goal is to make West Columbia the place to visit, the place to live, to work, to play. That’s our goal. We want people to come here, enjoy themselves, bring their families, and then to live here and stay here and grow here and retire here. We have all of the above right now. We just hope that that continues.”

This article first appeared in the May 24 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.

Reach Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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