Retail Enticement in Columbia’s Business Improvement District

By Matt Kennell
January 01, 2014
Several years ago, the City of Columbia and City Center Partnership (CCP) asked consultants ERA and Downtown Works to do a study on the impact of retail commerce in Columbia’s Business Improvement District (BID), which is delineated by Marion, Gervais, and Assembly streets, and Elmwood Avenue. The resulting recommendation determined that adding a specific mix of retail businesses would help in re-branding the area as a destination not only for shoppers, but also others with varied forms of commerce in mind. The increase in activity in the BID would then lead to more people and businesses taking notice of the area, thus enhancing the development already underway.

Evidence of this self-perpetuating wave of activity can be seen along Main and adjacent streets in the facades being refurbished, vacant buildings being cleared out and made available for lease, and interested parties clamoring to find just the right location for their businesses.

One of the earliest and most notable achievements was the recruitment of Mast General Store, which located in the vacant building that was formerly the Lourie’s department store. Fred Martin of Mast says, “Without Amy Stone (CCP’s then-retail recruiter) and CCP, Mast wouldn’t be in Columbia today. They made it very accommodating (for us).” Martin went on to cite the timing of Columbia’s completion of the streetscaping on Main Street, and the sense of Columbia being a lifestyle-driven city with lots of commercial and entertainment variety as some of the reasons Mast opted to locate on Main. He also liked the way that CCP connected the dots for Mast, for example, partnering with a residential developer for the floors above Mast’s store.

Heather Spires, hired by CCP as a retail recruiter two years ago and the current VP–Recruitment, considered the thousands of people working within the BID’s boundaries and thought a coffee shop would be a good fit to make the area more amenable not only to workers, but to shoppers and visitors as well. She worked with Sean McCrossin of Drip in Five Points to find an appropriate space for him to expand his business. Although Drip, being a food and beverage establishment, transcends the definition of a retail business, their location in the Wells Fargo building has enhanced everyone’s experience on Main Street.

Perhaps the most significant of Spires’ achievements to date is the Soda City Market that takes place Saturday mornings in the cordoned-off 1500 block of Main Street. What’s so significant about a street market? Spend a few minutes with Soda City founder Emile DeFelice and you’ll know why. He lauds Spires’ “tenacity and diplomacy” in working not only with the city council and Mayor Steven Benjamin (who wholeheartedly supported the idea), but also with the various city operational entities involved such as fire, police, and water services, and the merchants along Main who are affected by the street closing and stand to benefit from the influx of hundreds of consumers and browsers who descend on the market every Saturday. DeFelice sums it up by saying that “the Soda City Market would not have happened without the help of Heather and CCP.”

DeFelice has bigger plans now that the market has proved successful. He sees himself as a smaller, more personal version of CCP – helping his market vendors with everything from optimizing their tent and table set up, to assisting with branding and business plans. His next project, “Nest” – an artist and artisan outlet in front of the Marriot Hotel on Main – is fully under way. He notes that not only did CCP help him secure the space, but Spires brought in a retail specialist to assist him with “the science of retail.”

While Spires is busy matching an ever-growing number of entrepreneurs with just the right spaces for their businesses, she recognizes that her job would be more difficult if it weren’t for long-time successful retailers like the founders of Granger-Owings (who have expanded across the street with Circa 1332), the Picow’s of King’s Jewelers, Mark Plessinger of Frame of Mind, and others who have helped to create a vibrant working and living lifestyle in the area. Fred Martin of Mast sees “more potential on Columbia’s Main Street than in our other markets,” and he shares in the surge of optimism by actively discussing that potential with other retailers complementary to Mast and to the broader vision of retail in the BID.

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