Columbia Free Times

What Columbia Needs

24 Ways to Improve Our City
By Free Times
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 |
It’s a common refrain here at Free Times: “You know what Columbia needs?”

We’re opinionated people who spend a lot of time learning about, writing about and living in the Midlands. So we’ve generated quite a lot of ideas over the years about what would make Columbia a better place to visit and to live. Sometimes we even get our wish. After complaining for years about the city’s lack of an Ethiopian restaurant, we were happy to see Salina Café start serving traditional Ethiopian food at dinner, just one block from our Main Street office. Menkoi Ramen House filled the city’s tragic longtime ramen gap. A year ago we had zero craft breweries; soon, we’ll have three. And regardless of the results of the Dec. 3 strong-mayor election (polls were still open as Free Times went to press), Columbia City Council has already voted to increase the mayor’s salary from its paltry $17,500 to at least $75,000, allowing whoever holds that position to work full-time on behalf of the city, without conflicts of interest. We think that’s a good thing.

Indeed, we hope our list can serve as a guide to those looking to start a business. It’s frustrating when an entrepreneur decides that what downtown Columbia needs is, say, a deli. We have enough delis. We have delis coming out our ears. What we need is a falafel cart.

There are a lot of great things about Columbia already: thriving farmers markets, great bands, beautiful rivers, the rooftop bar at the Sheraton. But to take the next step, Columbia needs to step it up.

Our staff doesn’t agree on everything in this story. If you’re going to yell at us for suggesting we need a minor-league baseball team, direct your anger at Patrick Wall. And if you think consolidated government services are a dumb idea, Eva Moore is your target.

As a public service, we present, in no particular order: What Columbia Needs. — Eva Moore

1. More taxable property

Want money to fix our crumbling roads, improve our downtown schools or fund our zoo and library system? Then you need to take a look at one of Columbia’s most intractable challenges: its lack of taxable property. Thanks to the city’s many state agencies and the insatiable appetite of the University of South Carolina — not to mention a church on virtually every block — less than half of Columbia’s property is taxable, by some accounts. Since hell will no doubt freeze over before churches start paying property taxes (at least in South Carolina), there’s really only one alternative: urban density. That’s right, we need more housing units per square mile, which means more people paying taxes and pitching in to improve our roads and schools. It doesn’t hurt that urban density also happens to fit right in with current trends, in which more and more young people are just saying no to suburbs, opting instead for downtown living and walkable neighborhoods. — Dan Cook

2. An independent 24-hour diner

Some Columbia dwellers remember the days of the Capitol Café, of Martin’s, of Frank’s Hot Dogs. And some of us have always lived in a Columbia devoid of late-night downtown dining. All we’re saying is: Sometimes you need a cheeseburger at 4 in the morning. Waffle House and IHOP are all well and good, but a weird, independent, locally owned diner could go a long way toward making downtown Columbia a more happening place. We’d prefer it be near the State House, so we can eavesdrop on lobbyists and legislators. — Eva Moore

3. A mid-sized music venue

I often get asked why “decent” touring bands — i.e. mid-sized touring bands that dot the concert calendars of Athens’ 40 Watt, Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle, Charleston’s Music Farm, Charlotte’s Tremont Music Hall — don’t come to Columbia. I answer that question with a question: Where would they play? The 40 Watt holds 500 people; Cat’s Cradle, 750; the Music Farm, 800; and Tremont, 1,000. Our largest consistently operating venue: New Brookland Tavern, which is generously listed on ReverbNation as a 400-cap venue. (The actual fire code maximum is under 300.) And the last rooms of the required size for mid-sized touring acts — Headliners, in particular, and Five Points Pub — went under quickly. Having a dedicated, multi-genre music venue like Music Farm or Asheville’s Orange Peel that brought in mid-level touring acts would do wonders for our local music scene, and provide heretofore unimagined opportunities for advancement for the cream of its crop. But, of course, there’s a question, too, built into our answer: Where the hell would we put it? And would people support it? — Patrick Wall

4. Less puritanical leaders

A sex-toy shop in an old Taco Bell hurts exactly nobody. Ever since Taboo opened in late 2011, City Council has wasted thousands of dollars hiring an out-of-town attorney to rewrite its zoning laws, and wasted precious time on public hearings attended by only the whiny few. Sure, we live in the Bible Belt, but we’re also home to a major military base, a booming convention center and hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, some of whom might want to buy cherry-flavored lubricant. There’s nothing wrong with porn, people. Get over it. — Eva Moore

5. Clean rivers

Our inability to treat the Lower Broad, Lower Saluda and Congaree rivers like the assets they are is pathetic. The Saluda is a designated state scenic river. All three are lined with protected natural areas, including Congaree National Park, prized fisheries and rare habitat for the dwindling rocky shoals spider lilies. All three contribute significantly to the economy by drawing anglers, paddlers and other nature enthusiasts, yet they often run rich with fecal coliform. Let’s hold the septic polluters, the City of Columbia chief among them, accountable. Also, dipsticks need to pick up their empties. Then we can finally talk about those dragon boat races. — Porter Barron Jr.

6. A minor-league baseball team/semi-pro sport

Growing up, I played a lot of SimCity 2000. (No, I was not very cool.) Whenever my city reached a certain population, a block of text would pop up on the indicator bar: “Residents demand stadium”; building one brought a professional sports franchise to your burg. Columbia, one of the largest metropolitan populaces without professional sports of any kind, has been without a minor-league baseball team since 2004, and without a minor-league sports franchise of any kind since 2008, when the Inferno skated away, and thus without a family-affordable sports option. More than that, building a minor-league stadium, if done right, can yield major-league economic development around the park; it can open up undeveloped land, which could be a catalyst for new homes, businesses and jobs. And if built downtown, a professional stadium could help downtown Columbia continue its transformation into a thriving business and entertainment environment. (See: Greenville; Durham, N.C.) If you build it, they will come. And the citizens would cheer. — Patrick Wall

7. Congaree River booze cruises

More drunks on the river — just what we need, right? Right. Many of the world’s finest cities have risen beside rivers, and, in hotter climes such as ours, their residents amass along and afloat waterways to escape swelter, dust and din, and, yes, to imbibe deeply of cool refreshment. Columbia has long been home to a small population of riverbank denizens, known both affectionately and pejoratively as “river rats,” and they have much to teach those of you who spend your summers hermetically sealed. For the sake of citywide happiness, we must grow our river rat numbers, but do so responsibly. Therefore, Free Times suggests pontoon booze cruises with hourly rates, $1 cold beer, Weber grills and trash and recycling receptacles. A city-approved concessionaire should operate two to three vessels that would float the usually navigable waters downstream from the Barney Jordan Landing, a.k.a. the Rosewood put-in just below the old lock. Let’s have more fun. — Porter Barron Jr.

8. Public bathrooms downtown

It’s a simple matter of hygiene and humaneness. Downtown shoppers and homeless people alike need somewhere safe, legal and private to relieve themselves. — Eva Moore

9. A better jazz scene

Granted, we’re probably better off than we were a decade ago, but Columbia still lacks a dedicated jazz venue. Blue Martini closed two years ago. Mac’s on Main closed this year. Conundrum fills a small niche that isn’t representative of overall tastes. Speakeasy, which hosts live music only twice a week but fills things out on the mainstream side, comes closest. There’s precious little infrastructure beyond Speakeasy and the long-running jazz jams at Hunter-Gatherer, and its founder, local jazz icon Skipp Pearson, is ailing. A dedicated jazz venue, one that can, in jazz parlance, play inside and outside, is paramount for jazz not only to thrive in Columbia, but survive. — Patrick Wall

10. Affordable housing

We need inspired affordable housing in the tradition of architect Samuel Mockbee, who, in the 1990s with his Auburn students, transformed rural, poverty stricken Hale County, Ala., with high-quality, Picasso-inspired homes, built of found materials including tires and hay bales. The Mockbee homes, although fanciful, maintained the local vernacular and sense of place, featuring porches and dogtrots for example, and have been billed as the “architecture of decency” for stoking the dignity of their inhabitants. One nice site for said housing would be on the rivers’ west side where the chicken plant now sits, stinking up the joint. — Porter Barron Jr.

11. A Main Street bodega

Three hundred people live on Main Street — and when The Hub opens in the fall of 2014, that number will climb to 1,200. Where are they all going to buy toilet paper? Bananas? Aspirin? Heineken tallboys? A carton of milk? A dense, urban downtown needs a store within walking distance, and the Vista Publix is just a bit too far away. — Eva Moore

12. A falafel cart. In fact, more street food in general.

Once entirely nonexistent, Columbia’s street food options are now myriad but sorely limited to wings, artisan barbecue, burgers and hot dogs. Where are the dumplings? The falafel? The kebabs? The dosai? The pizza? Street food is great, quick and cheap, and local open-air fare is a key ingredient of a city’s culture, epicurean or otherwise. Step up your street food game, Columbia. — Patrick Wall

13. A live-work-play area in the center city

I remember visiting friends at Duke University in the early 2000, and downtown Durham, in those days, was a pretty dead place. But from 2004 on, Durham’s undergone a remarkable revitalization, led mostly by The American Tobacco Campus, a live-work-play area that draws visitors — in-towners and tourists alike — to its many culinary, entertainment and business destinations. The sparkling new Durham Bulls Athletic Park is there. The Durham Performing Arts Center, which has quickly developed into a regionally significant arts venue, is there. Full Frame Theater is there. WUNC-FM, Durham’s public radio station, is there; there are apartments and a YMCA and a host of eateries and taprooms. And its impact has spread around, catalyzing new walkable retail, restaurants, businesses and nightspots in and around Durham’s central loop. It’s an idea that could totally work on the Bull Street Campus, and could make Columbia a more attractive city. — Patrick Wall

14. More jobs

It’s no secret that one of Columbia’s biggest challenges is attracting and retaining young professionals, but the nature of that challenge has changed over the past couple of decades. Twenty years ago, the mass exodus of educated young people was fueled not only by a lack of jobs for the college-educated, but also by what was then Columbia’s stifling cultural climate, with its severely limited dining and entertainment options. These days, the food and arts scenes are thriving, there’s an emerging entrepreneurial tech sector and more of the city’s young people want to stay here — but can’t. Want Columbia to thrive? Economic development is job one. — Dan Cook

15. An end to the Ballet Wars

Columbia has two major ballet companies, the Columbia City Ballet and the Columbia Classical Ballet. They compete with each other for money, publicity, dancers and audience, and their attitude toward each other even at the best of times is one of thinly veiled contempt. While each regards itself as fighting the good fight with regard to its competitor, the end result — two arts institutions perpetually engaged in petty conflict — does nothing to advance the larger cause of presenting high quality dance productions to the city of Columbia. When a war has gone on as long as this one, there’s no point in arguing about who’s at fault — it’s just time to end it. — Dan Cook

16. More cross-pollination of ideas

Go to a farm-to-table dinner at City Roots, an avant-garde concert at Conundrum Music Hall, a knowledge-economy event at the University of South Carolina or the immensely popular Arts & Draughts music-art-beer series at the Columbia Museum of Art, and you can’t help but be impressed by all the forward-thinking energy in Columbia these days. What drives many of these efforts are cross-disciplinary partnerships — and we need more of them. When chefs sit down with graphic designers, brewers with attorneys, or artists with tech entrepreneurs, the resulting partnerships can be far more than the sum of their parts — and we all stand to benefit. — Dan Cook

17. More local oysters

To hell with Gulf Coast oysters. They’re fine for frying, but if you’re from South Carolina and you know what’s up, you look to the Lowcountry, home of Dixie’s finest. Oysters should taste like the ocean, and, when it comes to salinity levels, few can compare to ours. Sadly, Columbia’s existing oyster bars have yet to embrace what is best. Granted, our oysters naturally grow in clusters of long sharp shells, which makes for messy indoor eating, but that’s no excuse for abandoning quality. All you need is a cement slab floor with a drain in the middle or an outdoor deck. Take a cue from the legendary Bowen’s Island near Folly Beach and serve those sons of bitches by the shovelful. Or pay a little more for the beautiful select singles that South Carolina watermen have been cultivating since the early 2000s. When a state is endowed with something so majestic, its capital city should celebrate it. — Porter Barron Jr.

18. A mental public transit overhaul

It’s not just that we need more useful bus routes, buses that run more frequently, tourist-friendly downtown bus stops, a modern transit station, and a Google Maps tie-in to our bus schedules. We need Columbians to start thinking of buses as more than the sole province of poor people. As Columbia gets denser and more awesome, there’s going to be less space in it for cars, so we need to start working now on creating a bus system we all want to ride. — Eva Moore

19. A dim-sum restaurant

We’re not talking about a couple of dumplings on the appetizer menu. We’re talking about a full-scale Cantonese-style dim sum service: carts laden with stacked bowls; some holding mysterious plump pockets of things, steaming away; others holding little bits of meaty meats and greeny greens, plus assorted porridges, soups, pastries and tarts, and , of course, some fragrant hot tea. Dim sum is a mark of a world-class city. And we could lord it over Greenville and Charleston, neither of which have proper dim sum restaurants, either. — Eva Moore

20. A beer garden

We like the outdoors. We like good beer. The answer seems obvious. — Eva Moore

21. A consolidated city-county government

The degree of duplication in local government is rather ridiculous. Richland County has one set of zoning laws and a department to oversee them; the City of Columbia has another. Each has its own business licensing laws and office. Each government has its own economic development office. Each has its own garbage service. And the doughnut-holes and shoestring annexations mean the map of the city limits looks like some kind of cross between a fractal and Swiss cheese, leaving garbage trucks and police officers and meter readers to weave in and out of neighborhoods and municipalities on their routes. We could mush everything together like some metro areas have — Georgia’s nearby Augusta-Richmond County, for example, is an entirely consolidated city-county government. Or we could just combine some functions to eliminate waste. Heck, we already have a combined Columbia-Richland Fire Department. Planning and zoning consolidation would be a good next step. — Eva Moore

22. More breakfast and brunch options

Witness the insanely long lines that form outside @116State, Café Strudel and Original Pancake House every weekend morning: Columbians are hungry for breakfast and brunch options beyond Waffle House (not that there’s anything wrong with Waffle House). — Eva Moore

23. An independent bookstore

In 2008, I had the sad honor of working for Andy and Carrie Graves, proprietors of The Happy Bookseller, as they were in the process of closing down that dearly missed institution. My duties included scavenging for book boxes so that we could return surplus stock to the publishers, which is how I found myself in a standoff with a Barnes & Noble employee who said it was against corporate policy for me to be in his store’s dumpster. Suffice to say, The Happy Bookseller got its book boxes, and I now enjoy the slow death Amazon is inflicting on the wizened retail giant. But independent bookstores — thanks in part to new technologies for shopping, reading and managing a brick-and-mortar store — are seeing profits again, and new shops with their now requisite cafés are opening across the country, because most readers are also exuberant searchers and little joy lies in searching online. Columbia has some good used bookstores, but needs an independent bookstore offering new publications, a broad and deep selection of periodicals and, crucially, a knowledgeable staff. — Porter Barron Jr.

24. To take down the Confederate Flag

Not long after he took the head coaching job at Carolina, Steve Spurrier took aim not at archrival Clemson, but at another pesky pest. “I realize I’m not supposed to get in the political arena as a football coach,” Spurrier said after the 2007 spring game, “but if anybody were to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it.” Despite Spurrier’s protests — and the protests of former Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz, and former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden — the Confederate naval jack remains safely ensconced on the north side of the State House grounds. More than a social black eye, one that’s a constant reminder of Jim Crow, Bull Connor and the South’s pock-marked racial history, it’s an economic one: The NAACP continues its boycott, which has drawn strong support from out of state, and the NCAA has prohibited the state from hosting championship events (i.e. bowl games, basketball regionals) since 2001, both of which rob Columbia of millions in tourism revenue. The flag is “embarrassing to me,” said Spurrier, “and I know embarrassing to our state.” Hear hear, Steve. The flag was removed from the top of the State House dome in 2000; more than a decade later, it’s time to retire it permanently to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. — Patrick Wall

Other Staff Suggestions

• An effective wild hog eradication program for the Congaree Swamp that also provides sausage, bacon and sundry other pork products to area shelters and food banks — Porter Barron Jr.

• A Free Times appointee on every board and commission — Dan Cook

• Sidewalks the entire length of Assembly Street — Eva Moore

• A better understanding of bicycle culture (i.e. more bike lanes, stiffer penalties for bike hit-and-runs, etc.) — Patrick Wall

• For people to get used to parking in garages like a real city and quit crying about lack of on-street parking and about parking meters — Eva Moore

• A pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the Congaree River — Eva Moore

• The resurrection of the Biscuit House — Porter Barron Jr.

Top Reader Suggestions

At the end of our Best of Columbia poll, we asked readers to tell us what Columbia needs. There’s plenty of overlap with our list. Here are some of the more frequent suggestions we didn’t cover, for better or worse:

A waterpark
An amusement park
Outdoor air conditioning
Cheesecake Factory
Honest politicians
More things for people under 21 to do
A better dance club
A new mayor
A new governor
A strong mayor system
A nudist colony
A parking garage
in Five Points
A pro sports team
Better drivers
Better roads
Less crime
More bike lanes
More vegetarian restaurants

Let us know what you think: Email

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Local restaurants serving locally grown food during Palmetto Tasty Tomato Restaurant Feast, July 11-18:

Cafe Strudel

300 State St., 803-794-6634

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Il Giorgione
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2406 Devine St., 803-521-5063

Blue Marlin

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, 803-799-3838

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