Biotech Antidote To Blight

Boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated warehouses once riddled downtown Columbia, S.C. But leaders in this city plan to shake off that seedy image with a biotechnology research center expansion that could domino into $1.2 billion in redevelopment.

Local leaders hope the University of South Carolina's upcoming expansion of the Innovista research campus will attract companies and new residents to Columbia's tired CBD, which lost business activity with the relocation of several railroad lines from the district in the early 1980s. Innovista will concentrate on emerging technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cell technology, in order to attract innovative companies to South Carolina.

The first phase of construction to expand Innovista will generate 8,400 jobs with a collective economic impact exceeding $230 million annually, according to John Lumpkin, Innovista's interim director.

Over time, area redevelopment will add as much as 2.8 million sq. ft. of offices, 4.7 million sq. ft. of residences and 850,000 sq. ft. of residential space, representing a combined investment of perhaps $1.2 billion, Lumpkin estimates.

Public money initiated Columbia's revitalization, but private capital has eagerly followed in its wake, says Bill Coble, the city's mayor.

Innovista is at the epicenter of redevelopment that is scattered across 200 acres west of the Columbia Statehouse and down to the Congaree River. There are a dozen projects in the works and at least a dozen have been completed in the last 12 years, says Dr. Harry Miley, former chairman of the State Board of Economic Advisors.

“We're developing a sustainable downtown with a good solid mix of commercial and residential development while taking full advantage of the University of South Carolina and our new research campus,” says Fred Delk, executive director of Columbia Development Corp.

Downtown Columbia's rebirth has been plagued by several false starts. In the early 1980s, the City of Columbia formed the Columbia Development Corp. to oversee the revitalization and development of a bustling, 10-block arts and entertainment district called the Congaree Vista in the city center. There was just one large problem: The Vista development ended at Huger Street, just blocks from the river. “We had this beautiful river, but no public access,” says Mayor Coble.

Ten years later, a city/county partnership called the River Alliance has drafted plans for a 12-mile linear park system along the banks of the Congaree River, formed by the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers.

Some legacy properties, like a former prison with frontage on the Congaree, held up the waterfront plan. After public plans failed, the city sold the 23-acre property to Charleston-based developer Beach Co. in early 2005.

Recently, the company broke ground on CanalSide, a mixed-used development that will accommodate up to 750 single-family, condominium, and loft homes along with retail shops and office space.

If Columbia's downtown resurgence goes as planned, most observers say credit is due to the university. Economic advisor Harry Miley echoes that sentiment. “The University took a bold step by reaching out to the city and the private sector.”

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