That’s the way local developer Frank Cason described the opportunity to breathe life into a defunct part of the North Main corridor.
When Cason was approached by local businessmen Porter Barron and Rhett Elliott about a possible restaurant location that would eventually become Cottontown favorite War Mouth, he began his search in the usual places around Columbia, including West Columbia and Rosewood.
“We knew the Vista was out due to cost, but they wanted me to take a look at a building on North Main,” Cason said. “I was very skeptical.”
Cason said he first opened the doors to the former garage and repair shop at 1209 Franklin St. to find nearly 20 cars jammed into the space and a paint booth off to the side.
“We were looking for a place where we could put in a barbecue pit without disturbing downtown neighbors,” Barron said. “Here was this little forgotten industrial district close to the city center, and the family was looking to sell.”
Before pulling the trigger, Cason said he took a step back and realized he loved the building but was concerned about the area. After researching the area, he found the standout demographics to be young professionals age 21 to 35 and empty nesters 55 and above — indicators of a well-educated group with higher-than-average income.
After the initial design and buildout, the War Mouth opened in December 2015, with Barron as a co-owner and pitmaster and Elliott co-owner and head chef. The success of the gastropub featuring Southern food favorites and custom cocktails prompted Cason to explore other properties in the historic area known as Cottontown.
Other business owners had the same idea.
“After the opening of the War Mouth, CottonTown Brew Lab bought a building, followed by architecture firm Studio 2LR,” Cason said. “That’s when we realized the area was catching on.”
The Cason Group invested in more buildings, and soon Indah Coffee, Circa Barbershop and Columbia Presbyterian Church opened their doors.
Cason said Cottontown initially flourished because of the lower cost of purchasing property and the distinctiveness of the buildings, which he said have a mid-century modern-industrial, but not historic, feel.
Indah Coffee owners Nick and Stefanie Hauser were part of the North Main community prior to the initial revitalization of North Main, when abandoned gas stations, car dealerships and other industrial buildings featured prominently on the area landscape.
“There are not a lot of amenities on this side of town, and I thought for years how cool it would be for someone to open something in this area,” Nick Hauser said. “Then we thought, why not us?”
When he told a commercial real estate acquaintance about his plan, he faced a discouraging reaction.
“He said he couldn’t see a place like this working in this area,” Hauser said. “It was a questionable area with very little traffic flow. There were nights when I thought I might be crazy.”
Despite such reservations, the Hausers were confident they had a following, having started selling their product in 2010 at Soda City Market on Main Street.
“We didn’t just show up here,” Stefanie Hauser said. “We’ve been building our brand for over five years.”
Nick sees the commercialization of Cottontown, and the larger North Main area, as the next step in a puzzle where all the pieces are coming together.
“We have been blown away by the number of people from Irmo, Lexington, Forest Acres, Rosewood who will drive here and spend time with us,” Hauser said. “We’re still being discovered by people who haven’t been on this side of town in years.”
Nick hopes Indah will continue to be a meeting place for people in Columbia.
“Historically, coffee has always been a catalyst for community,” Hauser said. “We wanted to create a place where the community intersects to find solutions to problems facing our city.”
Despite early successes, Cottontown still faces some challenges. Cason said there are building owners who think there is a huge amount of hidden value on their properties. He believes the area is just now starting to gain steam, while others think it’s reached its peak.
“These owners are holding tight, waiting for the market to come to what they think the property is worth,” Cason said. “There is a perception of the area that’s still improving versus the perception that it’s the Vista, and people are expecting (high) prices.”
Barron had hoped to see more locally owned retail and restaurants around the War Mouth by now and agreed with Cason that some owners may be overplaying their land hands.
Patrick Palmer, NAI Avant’s director of retail services who has worked in Columbia for 18 years, also expected more businesses to have set up shop across Elmwood Avenue two and a half years after War Mouth’s opening.
“I know it’s slow to develop, but the North Main corridor seems like it should be getting more traction than what it is,” Palmer said. “Is there enough need and desire and demand in Columbia to go that far away from the core at this point? The answer is I don’t know.”
The future, however, looks bright for the area. Cason recently purchased four more buildings along Franklin and Sumter Streets where he plans to relocate his company offices from 1612 Marion Street. There are also plans for a brick-oven pizza restaurant in the area.
“You can’t skip steps. We all need to be cautious, but we absolutely want to continue to trickle out small business into that area. It may even turn into a fire hose,” Cason said. “I think one of the biggest advantages now is how little commercial product is along that corridor. We need to see people investing in properties.”
Columbia Regional Business Report Editor Melinda Waldrop contributed to this article.