By Matt Kennell
President & CEO, City Center Partnership
These days, there is little speculation about whether or not Columbia’s Main Street District will blossom beyond the grass roots revitalization highlighted by its First Thursdays and the Soda City Market. Within the past several years, the first wave of eye-catching businesses (like Mast General Store, the Nickelodeon, and Agape headquarters) has served to set the wheels of change in motion. Since then, investors and entrepreneurs refer to Main Street with as “the next urban hot spot,” “amazing,” and “optimistic.”
Among the latest entrepreneurs (willing to take a calculated risk in the Main Street District) are creative and successful types, wielding expertise and passion to fuel the resurgence of downtown Columbia.
One of these entrepreneurs is Tim Gardner, owner and proprietor of wine parlor, Lula Drake.
Tim cultivated his affection for fine wines while working in Spain for a wine import company, blending wines as a sommelier. It was there that he began dreaming of a place where he could feature the types of wines he’d come to love and appreciate – those offered by small-production, family-oriented vintners who practiced sustainable, organic, and biodynamic production methods.
Fast-forward to 2012, when Tim and his wife, Lorie, opened their video and website production company, Mad Monkey, in the 1600 block of Columbia’s Main Street. The resurgence of the Main Street District was well underway, and Tim knew that the time was right to establish their business there.
But that wasn’t all he wanted to bring to Main Street. Tim noticed a void in the Columbia market for a wine parlor offering “delicious, small-production wines.” He wanted the space to have a distinctly European feel – narrow and intimate, with a kitchen offering small plates to complement the specialized wines he painstakingly procured. His passion was brought to fruition in 2016 at Lula Drake, just a few steps away from Mad Monkey on Main Street.
Tim says that “there is an energy and optimism about (this block of Main) that’s indescribable.” Tim looks forward to the next phase, in which he envisions an event space on the second floor over Lula Drake – empty for many decades but with “beautiful windows overlooking Main Street.”
The Main Street District also appeals to developers Rita Patel and Marcus Munse. Sharing their passion for restoration, and drawn to live in one of Columbia’s historic downtown neighborhoods, they began looking for nearby opportunities to take up the mantle of hospitality begun by Rita’s hotelier parents.
They had a vision, and looked at several properties in Columbia’s Business Improvement District before deciding that they could tackle the renovation of three buildings instead of just one. They decided that the buildings along Taylor Street (formerly Western Auto and Rose Talbert Paints), and the building on Sumter Street (formerly Powell Furniture) could be connected to form an “L” shaped structure around the Community Bank on the corner of Taylor and Sumter Streets.
In conjunction with architecture firm The Boudreaux Group, they worked with Mashburn Construction (instrumental in renovating the buildings that now host Mast General Store, Nickelodeon, and Agape) to realize their dream.
Early in the process, they asked John Sherrer of the Historic Columbia Foundation to tour the buildings with them. John was able to point out many aspects of the architecture that Rita and Marcus appreciated, and later chose to preserve, highlight, or feature in their new hotel. Many of the square tin ceiling tiles can be salvaged and will be re-used in other areas of the Powell Furniture building. Some of the interior walls that had been exposed brick will be sealed, featuring bygone construction methods re-discovered during the renovation process. One room’s sealed brick wall even sports graffiti from the building’s abandoned period.
Their unique venture, dubbed Hotel Trundle, features 41 rooms and five extended-stay suites. The upper floor of the Powell Furniture building will become the new headquarters for The Boudreaux Group.
Rita and Marcus feel it is important to promote Columbia as a sought-after travel destination. Hotel Trundle will be a boutique hotel, but Rita stresses that “that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive room rates.” She wants to keep the rooms competitive with surrounding hotels, emphasizing that she wants guests to “experience Columbia in an inspiring setting.” She plans to feature nearby shops and restaurants to provide a true continental breakfast and libations for later in the day.
Amid the hubbub and complexities of design and construction, Rita and Marcus have already been approached with new prospects and opportunities in the Main Street District – they aren’t the only ones interested in the district’s revitalization. While they definitely have their eye on the horizon, they want to see Hotel Trundle up and running before undertaking their next project.
Marlo wants to draw more boutiques to Main Street, envisioning a shopping destination on a par with King Street in Charleston.
The passion for revitalizing Columbia’s Main Street has become contagious. As Rita Patel, Marcus Munse, and Tim Gardner can attest, it’s no easy thing to renovate and re-purpose historic buildings that have been vacant or out of use for decades. Nor is it easy to move an entire retail operation to a brand new location, as Marlo Meredith now knows. But despite the challenges, the energy and allure of the Main Street District has generated in this next wave of entrepreneurs a belief that the heart of Columbia – the Main Street District – is beating stronger than ever, and their desire is to become a vital part of it.