Midlands mayors say collaboration key to past successes, future promise
By Kevin Dietrich
The Midlands of 2020 bears little resemblance to that of 1990. Not only has downtown Columbia been remade, but surrounding cities such as Cayce, Forest Acres, Lexington and West Columbia are flourishing. Area mayors are proud of the changes but also recognize that challenges lie ahead.
The population of the Columbia metropolitan area has nearly doubled over the past 30 years to an estimated 850,000 individuals. During that period, the Colonial Life Arena, Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, Innovista District, minor league baseball Segra Park, University of South Carolina baseball Founders Park and Columbia Museum of Art were constructed.
In addition, numerous private structures were erected in the Capital City as The Vista and Main Street underwent a renaissance.
“We’ve gone from being a relatively sleepy Southern city to an urban oasis,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “And it happened through collaboration. People coming together made it possible.”
Surrounding communities have seen rapid growth as well. Some has come as a result of Columbia’s development, but there’s also been the arrival of new facilities such Nephron Pharmaceuticals and an Amazon Fulfillment Center in West Columbia, SCANA’s relocation to Cayce (later acquired by Dominion Energy), and continued expansion among existing companies, such as Michelin’s growth in Lexington. There’s also been an influx of retirees who have moved to Lake Murray and other Midlands areas to enjoy the area’s mild winters.
But those successes haven’t come without snags, such as pressure on infrastructure, including congestion on area roads, rising home costs, the need for additional schools and health facilities, and disappearing farmland.
“A challenge that will always persist is making certain that the best interests of your community will always be at the forefront when making decisions that will affect them,” said Forest Acres Mayor Frank Brunson.
In the short term, cities are dealing with 2020’s triple whammy: the Covid-19 pandemic, possibly the worst medical situation the nation has faced since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918; an economic slump that’s impacted the entire country, considered the worst downturn since the Great Depression; and social unrest at its highest levels since 1968.
“In a sense, we’re facing the challenges of 1918, 1932 and 1968 all in a single year,” Benjamin said.
The changes of the past three decades may seem most noticeable in Columbia, where the Vista and Main Street have been completely remade since 1990. Both were run down and largely devoid of high-paying jobs 30 years ago. Today, they are thriving, with financial services, creative services and entities in the hospitality industry such as restaurants, bars and hotels doing brisk business.
In addition, state government and the University of South Carolina continue to grow, with the latter seeing total enrollment increase from 25,306 in 1990 to 34,992 through fall 2019.
The surrounding communities have benefitted as employees and students of the above have moved into new and existing neighborhoods in Cayce, Forest Acres, Lexington and West Columbia.
As the surrounding cities have grown, they, like Columbia, have redeveloped areas that had grown dilapidated.
In Cayce, a prime example is the recent establishment of an arts district in the city’s historical downtown core in the River District at the corner of State and Frink streets, according to Mayor Elise Partin.
“The city has been actively engaged in revitalizing this area, specifically through ‘previtalization’ efforts for several years,” she said. “This process, appropriately described as ‘the art of what’s possible,’ has already led to the redevelopment of several derelict and underutilized properties into new and thriving businesses and has led to the development of an active artist group, the Cayce Arts Guild.”
The city also completed the Cayce Riverwalk along the Congaree River. Part of the Three Rivers Greenway, it’s a segment of a 12-mile trail that connects the city’s urban core with a full 25-mile regional trail system.
In West Columbia, city leaders have invested in public spaces not only to provide improved amenities such as parks and free public parking, but to attract new residential and business development, Mayor Tem Miles said.
These include the Brookland Development, a mixed-use, multimillion-dollar project housing retail, a restaurant and high-end apartments, he said.
Overcoming obstacles such as crowded roads, the need for new schools and medical facilities in growing areas, and costs associated with upgrading or adding infrastructure such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines will require planning and careful allotment of resources, along with buy-in from residents.
“Not one of us is an island. We all need each other and thus need to lift each other up,” Partin said. “Where people have pride, they are invested.”
Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougal said his town continues to grow and thrive because it is a safe place to live and raise a family, adding that the town council’s vision plan includes top priorities for the future. “Working together with other Midlands communities will allow all of us to continue the successes we are seeing now for many decades to come,” he said.