By Chuck Crumbo
Published June 26, 2012
Columbia appears to be recovering from the body blow it suffered three years ago when SCANA Corp. moved its headquarters and some 900 employees across the Congaree River to Cayce.
“We’re 100 shy of jobs lost since SCANA left town, and that’s a good thing,” Matt Kennell, president and CEO of City Center Partnership Inc., said during a recent work session of the Columbia City Council.
Downtown’s comeback didn’t happen all at once with a new company moving hundreds of workers into a glass-and-steel tower.
One of the largest companies in downtown Columbia, Aflac Group, has grown its local workforce to 550 workers since the fall of 2009, with the majority of employees assigned to a 55,000-square-foot building at 400 Laurel St. The company plans to employ 850 locally by year’s end.
Although Aflac’s Laurel Street building is on the edge of the area defined as the Central Business District, the addition of hundreds of workers is bound to have had an impact on downtown.
“They have to eat lunch somewhere,” said Grant Jackson, senior vice president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Aggressive efforts of downtown landlords, who lowered rents and spent money to redecorate their buildings, have also attracted new tenants.
“Downtown has had a very good run for about three years now,” said David Lockwood, senior vice president of Colliers International, a commercial real estate firm.
Tenants who moved from suburban office parks after downtown rents fell also filled some of the empty space, Lockwood added.
The rebranding of the high-rise tower at Gervais and Sumter streets, formerly known as the Wilbur Smith building, to IT-ology has attracted high-tech firms, Kennell said.
Even if a business doesn’t move into the tower, it wants to be close to IT-ology and will locate in Columbia, Kennell said. “They want to rub elbows with those people.”
IT-ology is a consortium of businesses, colleges and organizations focused on developing an information technology talent pipeline in the Midlands.
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“I think we’re finally getting beyond (the idea that) downtown is SCANA,” Jackson said. “SCANA leaving was a blip on the radar — a dip. Did it hurt? Yeah, it did.”
SCANA, which had been a part of downtown for 80 years, left in the fall of 2009, vacating 17 floors of the 21-story Palmetto Center at Hampton and Main streets. The investor-owned energy provider, parent of South Carolina Electric & Gas, moved into a $235 million, five-building campus at 12th Street and Interstate 77.
Changing demographics and lifestyles are now in downtown’s favor, Jackson said. Younger workers want to live downtown and be able to walk or ride their bicycle to the office.
The addition of residential space has contributed to the resurgence in downtown workers, Kennell said.
Main Street has about 300 residents and dozens more are moving into The Palms on Main, a former hotel at Lady and Main streets, that local developer Ben Arnold converted into studio and one-bedroom apartments.
Downtown could be adding 800 more residents if a developer follows through with a proposal to convert the Palmetto Center, SCANA’s old home, into an apartment building for college students.
Downtown also has been helped by the city’s efforts to build parking garages and recruit retail stores and restaurants to the area, Kennell said.
In addition, downtown has seen a growth in cultural activities and nighttime events, he said. Examples include The Nickelodeon, the only nonprofit art house film theater in South Carolina, which later this summer will open its new location on Main. Also the former Tapp’s department story has been filled with the studios of 40 artists, Kennell said.
“I think we’re getting beyond the ‘poor me, poor Columbia’ attitude,” Jackson said. “This is a great city. People realize it, people love it, people are touting it and people want to be a part of it.”
Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-401-1094, ext. 204.