“Columbia is a rising city in the New South,” says Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin. He and other local leaders have an ambitious vision for this vibrant, up-and-coming state capital. “We want to be the most talented, educated, and entrepreneurial city in America. And we are making the investments required to make that vision a reality.”
As the South Carolina state capital, Columbia’s economy is anchored by the public sector. In addition to the state government, the city is home to the University of South Carolina’s main campus. The university is a major employer as well as a reliable supplier of educated workers for local industry.
“We have a world class university with one of the top business schools in the country,” says Richland County Council Chairman Torrey Rush. “We are producing a lot of talent.” Fort Jackson, the army’s largest training base, is another important public sector institution located in Columbia. “Fort Jackson produces over half of the army’s soldiers and well over half of the women in the army train there,” Mayor Benjamin says.
While the public sector still dominates economically, Columbia’s private sector is gaining significant ground as manufacturers pour into the city. “The public sector is complemented by a growing and thriving manufacturing economy,” says the Mayor. The insurance industry also enjoys a strong foothold in Columbia.
Columbia’s central location is a major draw for private enterprise. The city is located in the geographic center of the state, just two hours from the mountains and two hours from the coast. Three interstates – I-77, I-20, and I-26 – bisect the city, providing easy access to the north, south, east, and west. “Companies see Columbia as a great hub,” Mr. Rush points out. “They can get to the ports – the Georgetown Port or the Inland Port or the Port of Charleston – and they are able to get there in a reasonable amount of time because of the interstate infrastructure that we have.”
Columbia’s cost of living and relatively low taxes are also a major attraction. “When you look at the overall cost of doing business and the cost of living, I think all that plays a factor,” Mr. Rush says. “When you go north or to bigger cities, there is a higher cost of living. “We’ve got all the amenities as those other areas, but [not] that extreme cost of living.”
City on the rise
Already armed with a convenient location and low cost of living, city leaders are eager to make Columbia even more appealing to newcomers. “We recognize that you have to build a place that is a great talent magnet,” Mayor Benjamin says. “You have to not only recruit great talent, you have to retain them. We have invested a great deal into talent recruitment and talent retention. We have invested a great deal into quality of life issues like greenways and bikeways.” Mr. Rush adds, “As a region we have focused on how to continue to grow our area and make companies want to be here.”
Major investments are underway to ensure that Columbia is an ideal place to live, work, and play. “We are overseeing a great boom in economic activity,” says Mayor Benjamin. “In the last four years, [there has been] $1.3 billion of new capital investment in our urban core.” The most significant project is the 165-acre BullStreet Development, once the site of a crumbling mental health institution. “It is the largest redevelopment in any downtown east of the Mississippi,” says Mayor Benjamin. “Over the course of this development, we anticipate we will see annual economic activity of $1.2 billion a year and we expect to see 11,000 jobs created on the campus.”
Located just a block from the State House in the heart of the city, BullStreet’s anchor is a brand new, $37 million baseball stadium that will host a minor league team and serve as a catalyst for development. “It is a smart investment,” Mayor Benjamin points out. “The stadium will bring a half million more people into the urban core over the course of the season, accelerating the development of the site and adding significant value to all the property around the BullStreet development.”
BullStreet will also feature a public park, two parking garages, 400,000 square feet of retail space and as much as 800,000 square feet of residential and office space built above the shops. “It is a mixed-use development where you can live, work, and play,” says Mr. Rush. The fully walkable site will balance historic charm with urban amenities. “Several of the historic buildings are already being adapted using a combination of local, state, and federal incentives that we have helped cobble together to encourage historic buildings to be repurposed for modern uses,” says the Mayor.
Other current projects include Killian’s Crossing, a 400-acre retail and residential development. Killian’s Crossing will be anchored by the first Kroger Marketplace in South Carolina. In addition to groceries, the 124,000-square-foot store will have a gas station, drive-through pharmacy, jewelry counter, clothing section, medical clinic and Starbucks. On hold since the recession, the plan to finally move forward with the Kroger Marketplace is a good sign for the local economy. Developers are optimistic that more construction is soon to follow; Killian’s Crossing has already been approved for 2,000 housing units and 550,000 square feet of office space in addition to 1.3 million square feet of retail space. “A lot of retail – from dealerships to restaurants – is popping up now,” Mr. Rush reports.
In addition, local leaders are targeting the north side of town for industrial development. “The north is a very high growth area for us,” Mr. Rush says. “We’ve got almost 2,000 acres where the county is looking at building an industrial park.”
Arts, culture, and walkability
Columbia is focused on more than just mixed-use development. The city is also invested in improving livability overall, from supporting world-class museums to making the community more walkable. “We are investing in our common cultural infrastructure,” says Mr. Rush. “We launched a very ambitious walk/bike plan this past year, not just focused on Millennials, but on all citizens. People want multiple options by which to commute and make their way around the city.” Public transportation is also targeted for improvement. “The county passed a local option sales tax two years ago that is going to provide $1.2 billion for new roads, a quarter of a billion to dramatically modernize our bus system, as well as close to $200 million for bikeways and greenways and shared roadways across the city.”
Once the site of an old cotton mill, the South Carolina State Museum just received a major update. The $23 million Windows to New Worlds renovation and expansion added one of the largest planetariums in the Southeast, a state-of-the-art observatory and the only permanent 4D theater in the state. “It may be the only state museum in the country that has those three components,” Mr. Rush points out. The addition earned six industry-leading awards – and transformed the history museum into a premier regional attraction.
Columbia’s Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is wrapping up a $36 million renovation and expansion. “Our zoo is the number one tourist attraction in the state,” says Mr. Rush. “It is second to none.” The new addition will add a leading-edge sea lion exhibit, relocated grizzly bear habitat, new otter exhibit, interactive children’s garden, new guest relations center and gift shop expansion. The 170-acre site is already home to over 2,000 animals as well as lush botanical gardens, scenic river views, and historic landmarks.
Columbia also boasts “the largest children’s museum in the South” as well as an art museum. Both the Columbia Museum of Art and the Richland County Library have been selected as finalists for The National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the most prestigious service award for America’s libraries and museums. “We are one of only two cities in the country that has two finalists,” says Mr. Rush.
The money and effort pouring into Columbia’s development projects and cultural amenities demonstrates the city’s commitment to leading the New South. “We are providing world-class cultural experiences,” Mayor Benjamin points out. “And you get these world-class cultural amenities without having the incredible cost of living and cost of doing business that you find in some of the cities that we plan to compete with. And we plan to compete not just with Charleston and Greenville and Charlotte; when we are trying to get business we are competing with New York and Beijing and Mexico City as well.”
The Mayor is confident that Columbia will hold its own against these heavy hitters when it comes to attracting new business. “The advances that we have seen here over the last two decades support our vision.”