Growing up near the Greenview area of North Columbia, Tamala Lathan has childhood memories of vibrant business communities.
She’s now one of the reasons the metropolitan footprint around her old neighborhood is looking decidedly less down-at-the-heels.
Lathan and her husband, Vinson Lathan, are co-owners of Carolina Kernels, a gourmet popcorn and sandwich shop they first opened in 2014 in Greenview Plaza on North Main Street. Booming business and a need for more space led to their March relocation to a former car lot at 2720 Main St., where they are in the heart of a civic and commercial revitalization taking place across Elmwood Avenue.
“I’m happy that the area is coming around, because it’s been a long time,” said Lathan, who runs the shop with her mother, Geneva Leysath. “Just to see the change that’s coming and to hear about what’s coming, I think it’s exciting. We haven’t had this since I was a kid. And actually, the way it sounds, it’s going to be better than when I was a kid.”
Carolina Kernels, which offers 65-plus popcorn flavors such as Key Lime and Chocolate Drizzle Better Cheddar and sells its wares at Colonial Life Arena during University of South Carolina basketball games, is one of several flourishing businesses drawing customers and cash to North Main Street across what was once seen as an economic dividing line.
“Getting people to come north of Elmwood was smack-dab impossible,” said Doug Aylard, who opened Vino Garage, a specialty wine and beer shop, at 2327 Main St. – a refurbished transmission shop – with his wife, Karen Oliver, in 2012.
Plenty of people thought he was crazy four years ago, Aylard said, and Vino Garage remained a retail outlier until The War Mouth gastropub opened across Main Street at 1209 Franklin St. in December 2015. The Cason Development Group saw a chance to transform the old garage into a 2,400-square-foot neighborhood gathering place with rustic architectural details that stayed true to its industrial roots.
“We wanted a cool, unique area,” said owner Frank Cason, who added his company was also intrigued by “the idea that we could be pioneers out there, creating something unique.”
Overcoming the doubts
Like Aylard, Cason encountered a fair amount of initial skepticism, but the surrounding neighborhoods of Cottontown, Earlewood and Elmwood Park welcomed its new resident immediately, and Cason is now looking to develop other nearby properties.
“We felt confident about the concept and the building,” Cason said. “We felt good enough about the location that it would come, and it happened.”
Aylard said War Mouth, which attracts a similar clientele as Vino Garage, has been a boost to his business – which he never doubted would succeed.
“My wife and I live in Cottontown, and for the longest time, we knew this area was just really underserved,” Aylard said. “It took a year or two longer than we thought it would, but it’s happening, and I think in the next six to eight months, this entire area is going to look significantly different.”
Columbia architectural and design firm Studio 2LR recently moved from its Vista location to 2428 Main St., lured by affordable rent for its 35,000-square-foot headquarters, a regulatory process made easy by motivated city officials and the chance to be a part of a quirkier, creative business scene.
“It’s the next natural progression for growth to happen,” said Studio 2LR vice president Tripp Riley. “You’ve got properties that are undervalued, and you’ve got the resources to bring value to them, and I think that’s going to help really spur on that economic growth in that area. The North Main area has an identity that they want to preserve, just like the Vista has its identity.”
Streetscape improvements from Elmwood to the railroad trestle at Earlewood Park have spruced up that identity, and a second phase of that project will begin in December, Columbia City Councilman Sam Davis said. The $35 million second phase will stretch from Anthony Avenue to just below Columbia College.
Connecting the dots
That’s music to the ears of Sabrina Odom, executive director of the North Columbia Business Association. Odom, a longtime area resident and graduate of Eau Claire High School who ran a deli in the North Main area for 10 years, envisions an unbroken stretch of appealing urban landscape from North Columbia to the Statehouse.
“I don’t want anyone to get off I-20 and get on North Main Street going to the Capitol and feel like, ‘OK, where are we at?’ I want it to be seamless,” Odom said. “We have a very diverse area. We have all kinds of people that live in our area – great people, of all income levels. That’s what we want people to see now.”
Infrastructure improvements such as the streetscaping project, with its second phase to be funded by a mix of federal and Richland County Transportation Penny Program dollars, exemplify the civic commitment necessary to revitalize an area, said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s all been made possible because the city took care of improving the infrastructure,” Knapp said. “The same thing happened in the Vista. The Vista was nothing but a bunch of warehouses. … Look at the pattern. The Vista has been successful. Main Street (in downtown Columbia) has been successful. North Main Street had to wait its turn, but now it is now coming.”
North Main has also benefitted from the massive The Commons at BullStreet redevelopment project. The billion-dollar, 20-year buildout, which features $37 million Spirit Communications Park and is slated to include multiple housing, retail and entertainment options, is close enough to North Main to drive interest but far enough away to not inflate rents, business owners and officials said.
“Now that we’re here and other people are coming, it’s making folks slow down a little bit more, to kind of see what’s really here and see that it’s not as bad as people think it is or it once was,” Lathan said. “It’s definitely making people slow down.”
While a lower cost of doing business, ample parking as compared to other, more built-up districts and development-friendly zoning laws are working in North Main’s favor, challenges remain. Some individual owners are reluctant to sell key pieces of land, in some cases waiting for more lucrative offers, Davis said, and there is still a public perception of North Main as the business wasteland parts of it became after the large car dealerships that once made up most of its commercial activity decamped for other locales.
“The people who make decisions, they drive up and down Main Street, and they saw the run-down or vacated properties, and that’s what they thought this area was,” Aylard said. “But if they had turned right or left into any of the neighborhoods, they would have seen that we’re very diverse, very upwardly mobile people with disposable cash.”
That’s the goal now in North Main – to redirect people’s attention, and their pocketbooks.
“I think a lot of people in Columbia probably haven’t gone down North Main Street for a while,” Knapp said. “They need to have a reason to do that, and then they’ll probably go, ‘Oh, this isn’t the way I remember it.’ Get them to make that turn.”