A newly remodeled movie theater on Columbia Mall Boulevard is bringing new life to the area as part of a nonprofit’s revitalization efforts that take advantage of a recently created federal tax incentive program.
Prior to renovation, the movie theater, now known as Capital 8, sat abandoned for 11 years, according to Bishop Eric Freeman, pastor and founder of The Meeting Place Church of Greater Columbia.
The theater is part of a 23-acre property in northeast Columbia that The Meeting Place Church purchased for about $3.5 million in 2017, according to Richland County property records. The property has 200,000 square feet of indoor space that was underutilized when the church took over.
The Columbia Mall Boulevard property was designated as a South Carolina Opportunity Zone by Gov. Henry McMaster last year. Opportunity Zones are a community development program created by Congress in 2017 to encourage long-term private investments in economically distressed communities by offering deferred capital gains taxes to investors. South Carolina has 135 Opportunity Zones across the state, including nine in Richland County.
“Opportunity Zones are about an area that’s been identified,” Freeman said. “It has tremendous potential for those who have the vision to come and invest in cultivating that potential.”
Freeman said one of the priorities of The Meeting Place Church is economic development and empowerment of underserved areas, and this is the second development The Meeting Place Church has worked on. The first was on Percival Road.
“We go into places that look dead, as a congregation, and kind of do the unorthodox thing of saying, ‘Hey, I know this space looks dead, I know this area feels dead, but we come with good news,’ ” Freeman said. “We will put our resources behind that good news to show a real-life illustration in the community of what once was dead can come back to life again.”
When The Meeting Place Church acquired the Columbia Mall Boulevard property, Freeman said the initial priorities were to build a community center, a church sanctuary and a conference center. After those goals were finished, he started approaching small businesses to partner with the church.
The development of the movie theater is a collaboration between movie theater group Spotlight Cinemas and The Meeting Place Church.
Freeman met Rick Phillips, owner of Spotlight Cinemas, when the pastor was trying to buy new seats for the movie theater. Freeman asked Phillips if he wanted to partner on the redevelopment.
Phillips, having opened seven movie theaters locations since 1996, was reluctant to open another. He said he already had too much on his plate, including the Spotlight Cinemas St. Andrews location, but offered to help coach Freeman through the renovation.
“It’s a great location,” Phillips said of his thoughts when he first saw the theater. “It’s got great bones. You know, it was probably a great theater in its time, and it’s too bad that somebody doesn’t reopen it, because I think, in this community, you really benefit from having a theater.”
After more than a year and a half of consulting, Phillips decided to formally partner with The Meeting Place Church. Work began in August 2018, and Capital 8 opened in December.
Phillips said Freeman’s energy convinced him to come onboard fully.
“His vision and just his passion for what he was trying to do just kind of became infectious,” Phillips said.
The theater was initially scheduled to open the before Thanksgiving, but a four-week delay in receiving new seats pushed back the opening date.
Because of the delay, Phillips said the theater was unable to have the big grand opening that it wanted, but news of its rebirth has slowly spread.
“Our business is increasing on a weekly basis, and it’s just a matter of getting people to know that there’s an alternative (theater) in their area to go to,” he said.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said in a statement that he is thankful to Freeman and Phillips “for seeing and acting on a vision for a family friendly movie theater in our city, particularly in this neighborhood. This project is one of the first of what we hope are many successful, impactful Opportunity Zone developments in Columbia.”
Reach staff writer Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144 or @PatHoffCRBJ on Twitter.