Downtown Columbia Adapts After Recession Affects Business
COLUMBIA — The recession's effects on Columbia have the downtown District focusing on turning vacant retail shops into offices and boutiques, although an economic boom remains only a future goal.
More than 35 new businesses have begun operating in downtown Columbia since January 2010. Richmond Wheeler owns The Muse Cafe and Gallery, one of those start-ups. As Columbia recovers from the economic downturn, the time was right to open a new business, Wheeler said.
"The North Village arts district has so many things and so many inspiring people, outlooks for creativity, and creative expression," Wheeler said of the Orr St. area. "We wanted to be a part of that."
Columbia College is moving its growing nursing program into the Cherry St. building once occupied by the YouZeum, the failed science museum for children. Work on the building is bringing construction money downtown and, later this year, the students and staff moving downtown will inject at least $1 million into the District, Columbia College President Gerald Brouder said.
Still, businesses such as The Pasta Factory restaurant have left downtown, citing high rent costs. And while the city aims to beautify downtown, one of its projects, the parking garage at Fifth and Walnut, has yet to yield success. The new 10-story, $14 million parking garage, criticized by some as an unnecessary eyesore, has not attracted a single business to its first-floor retail units.
"I think we were kind of a victim of the economy at the time," Columbia Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said. "There was quite a lot of commercial and retail space still available in the downtown area, and there really just wasn't any interest."
But Romaine said the new $25 million City Hall and other building renovations have had a positive effect on downtown, as have streetscape improvements, such as replacing old sidewalks along Broadway. Downtown has evolved over the past four decades, Columbia resident Anne Manahan said.
"There were no trees downtown, there were no places to eat," said Manahan, a 45-year resident of the city. "All the beautification that has taken place has been just wonderful, and all the boutiques. It's just a sophisticated little town now."
Residents and business owners said the two things that'll help the downtown District grow are its originality and longtime customers.
"Some of these people that have been here for a really long time have been great, supporting us and strengthening us," said Wheeler, the cafe owner. "They're really excited to have us here."