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Metro areas bursting with activity

From the Upstate to the Midlands to the Low Country, cranes dot the skylines of South Carolina’s three largest metropolitan areas. A mid-2014 snapshot of Greenville, Columbia and Charleston reveals creative public-private partnerships promoting each area’s unique features and appealing to residents, workers and visitors. Development activity in the metro areas are also prompting growth in nearby cities and towns. 

Greenville

A public plaza for concerts and other outdoor events made possible by a city contribution is enhancing the redevelopment of the Hyatt Hotel—the public-private project that kicked off the city’s downtown revitalization 30 years ago.

ONE City Plaza, two blocks down from the Hyatt on Main Street, is Greenville’s newest mixed-use hub. The project includes some 400,000 square feet of office space, Clemson University’s MBA offices, Aloft hotel and parking garage, retail space and an office tower renovation. The private investment, which includes the opening of Brooks Brothers, Anthropologie, Orvis and Tupelo Honey restaurant, has activated the Plaza days and evenings and prompted redevelopment of nearby buildings. The city is providing a $4 million renovation of the property’s public space, formerly the Piazza Bergamo.

Old City Plaza, Greenville 
One City Plaza, Greenville, SC

Enhancement of RiverPlace—a mixed use development along the Reedy River including a new Embassy Suites Hotel and condominiums, office and retail—continues with a city-supported parking garage, additional public plazas and needed infrastructure.

Nancy Whitworth, deputy city manager, points out that infilling of single family homes and apartments across the city is at the highest levels ever, attesting to the desirability of city living but requiring ongoing adjustments to support infrastructure. “The challenges are obvious: how to maintain the momentum, keep up with the requirements of public infrastructure and service an ever more popular downtown,” she said.

Travelers Rest

About nine miles north of downtown Greenville, the City of Travelers Rest has benefited with the Swamp Rabbit Trail completion linking the two cities. The Main Street revitalization efforts finished in 2009 include more than 40 new businesses filling almost all of Travelers Rest’s empty downtown buildings.

The city just completed construction on Trailblazer Park, a venue for performing arts, cultural activities and festivals made possible by a Appalachian Regional Commission grant and bond refinancing. Thanks to the cluster of new Main Street restaurants, the hospitality tax revenue produced will support the park’s events and enhancements, according to Dianna Turner, city administrator.

Under construction is a new fire station. A magistrate complex and a move of City Hall are on the upcoming project list, according to Mayor Wayne McCall.

Columbia

The City of Columbia is currently experiencing $800 million in investment, including hotels, student housing, retail, homegrown restaurants and craft breweries. City business liaison Ryan Coleman says he has never seen such a boom before in his eight years with the city.

The investment underway does not yet include the Bull Street development either, he noted. He expects over the next 18-24 months investment will approach $1 billion downtown.

Construction in the Congaree Vista
Construction in the Congaree Vista, Columbia, SC

“We see a trend of moving back downtown, to be close to jobs and recreation, because time is seen as more of a premium now,” Coleman said. “The popularity of mixed use development is driving much of the activity.”

Projects to note

  • The 165-acre Bull Street mixed use development, backed by hospitality tax money, will include a minor league baseball stadium, office space, housing, park and retail mix. Public investment has not yet been fully determined for what is likely the largest land-use project in a Southeastern downtown metro area.

  • Current construction projections indicate some 4,500 new beds mainly for college students within the next two years. This reflects roughly $375 million in downtown housing investment by developers aided in part by tax breaks.

  • A $200,000 program will provide 10-year forgivable loans to successful applicants seeking to establish or grow small Main Street businesses, made possible by a mix of city and federal funds.

  • Facade improvement on Main Street is being fueled by $400,000 in loans, which in turn has spurred more than $6 million in new private development.

Coleman sees the Bull Street stadium complex as another tool that not only prompts existing business to grow but also attracts new companies to locate in the city. “The first domino is often the challenge, but once you get one, the others come one after the other,” he explained.

“I foresee some growing pains as infrastructure is put in to handle the new investment, but this activity will create ripples in the community—an evolutionary process,” he said.  

Cayce

Partnerships abound in the City of Cayce, home to 13,000 residents and 700 businesses across the Congaree River from downtown Columbia. According to Mayor Elise Partin, even more residents are being accommodated with new housing options. Exciting new recreational facilities and shopping opportunities will follow.

Under construction is the 299-unit Otarre Point apartment community adjacent to the U.S. Tennis Association-award winning Cayce Tennis and Fitness Center. The mayor noted the developers were drawn to the 19-acre site because of the center, a collaboration among the City of Cayce which provided $2.4 million in Tax Increment Financing funds, SCANA Corporation which donated 14.6 acres of land, and the Lexington County Recreation and Aging Commission.

“SCANA has built about three miles of walking trails, called the Timmerman Trail, on 300 acres that will eventually become a history park representing 12,000 years of continuous habitation in this area,” Partin said of the future venture supported by federal, state, local and private funds.

Cayce is completing Riverwalk’s fourth and final phase now, and the mayor deems this major recreational amenity as a useful economic development tool.

Concord Park, a 221-home community, is halfway to completion through a partnership with Lexington County, CSX railroad and Mungo Homes. Mayor Partin said Concord Park became Mungo’s fastest selling community in the state last year.

On tap is the Brickworks planned development, now ready for construction of retail, residential, offices and restaurants in the TIF district spanning from the Blossom Street bridge on Knox Abbott Drive west to State Street—a main entry corridor. The property owner plans to donate some of the land to construct Centennial Square, a public space near Riverwalk trails.

Cayce’s growth is directly tied to being part of a “bustling region,” while still maintaining a small-town feel in its midst, Partin said. From travelers coming into Columbia Metropolitan Airport to visit Fort Jackson or a nearby college, to Riverwalk visitors, to those who live and work on either side of the river, she emphasized, “we are all connected and dependent upon each other to thrive.”

Charleston

From east to west across the Charleston peninsula, significant improvements are underway to enhance major roadways, cultural venues, tech businesses and medical research.

Funded with federal highway grants, SC Transportation Infrastructure Bank funds and city monies, the Septima Clark “crosstown” parkway is addressing major drainage issues with the construction of a comprehensive surface water collection system and a pump station on the Ashley River. The project area covers about 20 percent of the Charleston peninsula and has experienced regular flooding.

“When heavy rainfall during high tides causes flooding of this busy part of Highway 17, access is cut off to hospitals and police and fire response for short periods of time,” explained Steve Bedard, city chief financial officer, about the nine-year project. “This $155 million investment is the largest capital project in the city’s history, and it will solve the drainage situation and improve safety for everyone.”

Thanks to a public-private partnership, renovation of the venerable but outdated Gaillard Auditorium should be completed in spring 2015 in time for Spoleto USA, Bedard said. To be called the Gaillard Center, the 45-year-old building will be remodeled to include a 1,850-seat performance hall featuring world-class acoustics and exhibition space on the floor below.

Some 60,000 square feet of municipal office space along with a police substation will be added to the facility. Mayor Joe Riley has pointed out that the Gaillard Center will complete “the total transformation of the city’s art and cultural venues.”

Also on the peninsula, the city’s technology sector is exploding in space needs. The city rents two incubator buildings on East Bay Street, both full of digital technology start-ups. “We have more demand than space available,” said Bedard. Several portions of the city, including Daniel Island, are considered to be in the “Charleston Digital Corridor.”

The city has purchased land north of the Ravenel Bridge for further tech expansion through a public-private partnership. Design is underway for a 200,000 square-foot building and parking garage. The garage in support of this growth will be publicly financed and owned, he said.

Three fast-growing companies—PeopleMatter serving human resources needs, Boom Town providing real estate software and Benefitfocus supporting insurance benefits management—have helped raise Charleston’s tech profile. “Maybe ‘Silicon Harbor’ would be a good reference to this emphasis,” Bedard chuckled.

On the peninsula’s western side, a city partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina and its foundation will help provide more research space for the growing amount of grants to MUSC researchers who now receive about $250 million total.  

The first endeavor, on a 20-acre site near the Riley Ballpark, will be a 1,000-car parking garage, followed by retail, residential and park space. Construction will begin early 2015 and likely take 15-20 years to build out. Most of the public funding will come from a Tax Increment Financing district formed for the project, and those funds will cover the cost of roads, sidewalks, parks and some parking facilities.  

Bedard mentioned the number of city commercial and residential building permits as a powerful measurement. Project permits in calendar year 2012 were valued at $415 million, which then grew to $702 million in 2013 and included most of the $144 million for Gaillard. In 2014, $680-700 million is expected, not including Gaillard funds.   

Mount Pleasant

The Town of Mount Pleasant ranks ninth on the recent U.S. Census list of the nation’s fastest growing cities, but ensuring a balance between managing this growth and maintaining the town’s charm is ever present for town leaders.

In just 40 years, the town’s population has grown from 7,000 to 75,000, and 33,000 housing units are within the town limits—not including 1,300 home building permits issued during the past fiscal year, or the home sites being prepped now for future building.

Where people live, business will follow, and Mount Pleasant now has 5,300 registered businesses. Traffic through the historic peninsula town just minutes from downtown Charleston has been spread out, explained Town Administrator Eric DeMoura. “We have key road construction projects underway to add to our transportation network. So far we have been successful in moving cars around so everyone is not driving on the same main roads.”

Public funds have made possible sidewalks, bike lanes and walking paths alongside town roadways—as DeMoura said, providing “complete streets” and not just paved roads. Bidding will begin soon for a $13 million re-do of the revitalized business corridor Coleman Boulevard and a new north-south $16 million connector called Sweetgrass Basket Parkway.

Also to be bid this fall is a new $25 million Town Hall, and an elementary school and middle school are being built near Boone Hall Plantation. Two new park projects totaling $4 million are in design, an addition to the popular Memorial Waterfront Park and a new 250-acre park off Rifle Range Road.

Memorial Waterfront Park
Memorial Waterfront Park, Mount Pleasant, SC

Columbia, Greenville and Charleston, along with cities and towns in their metro areas, provide a positive snapshot of economic expansion taking place all over the state after years of stagnant growth. Based on statewide economic indicators, signs are good for continued economic growth in all corners of the state.