Frank Cason can remember a time in the not-too-distant past when the words “gastropub” and “specialty wine shop” would not have prompted thoughts of Columbia’s North Main Street. So when the local commercial real estate developer and lifelong Columbia resident decided in 2015 to partner up with Porter Barron and Rhett Elliott to open a new restaurant in the former industrial hub of the area’s Cottontown, he wasn’t surprised that his decision was met with, as he describes, “more than a little skepticism.”
“We certainly raised a few eyebrows,” says Frank, founder of The Cason Development Group, a Columbia-based firm focusing on small to midsize development projects in South Carolina. “People were skeptical, but we felt good about the location and the potential for this area.”
Once considered a corridor of promise, North Main Street today is being eyed by developers as Columbia’s next hot spot. Also called “NOMA” by business owners and residents there, the approximately 5-mile stretch between Elmwood and I-20 is currently undergoing a transformation, fueled by several factors including revitalization of Main Street, the flourishing Vista and Five Points areas and a massive development project already underway on Bull Street.
On North Main, business owners who invested early now teem with excitement, the sounds of construction confirming what they felt could come to the area. A coffee shop and a barber shop in early spring, more restaurants under contract, even speculation of larger retailers are all now part of everyday talk in NOMA.
It seems to be a logical progression. “We’ve seen incredible investment in the Vista and all along Main Street. Now there are very few places left where entrepreneurial businesses, artists and restaurants can go, and I believe that’s driving some of the focus to North Main Street,” Frank says.
Upper Main’s new fast track on redevelopment is in part linked to its proximity to the behemoth Commons at Bull Street redevelopment project, which includes the $37 million Spirit Communications Park and planned retail, residential and entertainment mix.
“The closest commercial neighborhood to Bull Street is that Upper Main Street stretch, which is considered to be the area between Elmwood Avenue and Sunset Boulevard,” Frank says. “If that continues to grow and is hip and trendy, people who come into Columbia for the Bull Street property are going to look at the Upper Main Street area a little differently. The two areas will coexist nicely.”
Making the ‘Right Moves’
Redevelopment of NOMA is not without its challenges, but stakeholders like City Councilman Sam Davis have been working to overcome them. Sam has worked for decades to spur growth in the area and clear “roadblocks,” including lingering questions over safety, traffic and infrastructure. City codes are also under review, and the area from Elmwood Avenue to Fairfield Road was recently rezoned, allowing for mixed use of commercial buildings.
A multi-million dollar streetscaping project, funded through a mix of federal dollars and a Richland County Transportation Penny Program, is also now underway along with work to bury powerlines and upgrade traffic lights.
“It’s a good signal that we’re putting our money where our mouth is and getting the infrastructure in place to support growth in that area,” says Sam, whose District 1 includes the communities along North Main Street. “The timing is right. We’re just trying to make sure we make all the right moves and attract the people who are necessary to make the investments.”
Sam explains that the development plans have always included parts of North Main past the Sunset intersection. Upgrading infrastructure has been an important first hurdle, and changing people’s perceptions about North Main Street is another challenge.
“The area has been stigmatized by perceptions of crime, although crime is no worse there than in other areas,” says Sam. “People tend to believe what they read until they come to this area and see the commercial and residential property that’s available. We have a number of properties that developers are beginning to purchase now … and people talk. Word will get out soon about the great things that North Main has to offer.”
Matt Kennell has seen the perception of an area shift drastically firsthand. As president and CEO of City Center Partnership (CCP), he was recruited in 2011 to make downtown Columbia “clean, safe and livable.”
“We’ve come a long way from a few decades ago when National Geographic magazine published a picture of the Vista with the headline that read something like ‘Worst urban area in America,’” says Matt, who started the first Business Improvement District in South Carolina through CCP. “That work to transform Columbia has now spread down Main Street into Upper and North Main.”
North Main Street’s redevelopment boom further illustrates the need to better connect the Vista, Main Street and NOMA. “Elmwood has been a divide, separating North Main from the rest of downtown Columbia, and like Gervais and Assembly, it’s not designed for pedestrians but for cars,” he shares. “We need to create a safer, easier way to get people across those streets so these separate areas feel like one big city center.”
Past Meets Present
While redevelopment and businesses often bring physical change, stakeholders in NOMA hope to preserve much of the area’s past while building for the future. “North Main Street today is an interesting mix … an architectural journey through all the changes that have happened over time there,” says John Sherrer, director of culture resources for Historic Columbia.
Though people’s definitions of where North Main Street begins vary, history provides some context. “Elmwood Avenue was Upper Street originally, and that was the northern city limit. If you put it in that framework, North Main sensibly begins there,” John says. “I wouldn’t call anything south of Elmwood ‘North Main.’”
Once a significant component of Columbia’s commercial district, North Main Street was a blend of cotton warehouses, blacksmith shops and other commercial buildings interspersed with residential dwelling during the early 19th century. By the mid-20th century, the area became more commercialized, bringing automobile dealerships, garages and, in some cases, restaurants like a Krispy Kreme, which opened in 1969.
“Much like any district, you do have an evolution,” John says. “What we’ve arrived at now is this sort of interesting, compelling blend of architecture in many areas and areas that are bereft of any buildings, which could be redeveloped to complement the historic buildings that are still standing.”
May is National Historic Preservation Month, and John encourages residents to learn more about the history of NOMA. “It’s important that the historical significance of this area isn’t lost in redevelopment. So far, developers have embraced preservation of North Main’s historic sites and buildings,” he says.
Historical significance and the settings that come along with it were major draws for Frank Cason as he and his partners searched for a location for the War Mouth restaurant, an already popular neighborhood eatery serving chef-prepared barbecue dishes alongside house-made sausage, catfish stew and other Southern fare.
“When we picked the location, we wanted to keep much of the old, rustic architectural details and stay true to the area’s industrial roots,” Frank says of the 2,400-square-foot garage turned restaurant. “We wanted a place where people came for the food and the unique setting, and we found that here along Upper Main.”
The people who now call NOMA home are as varied as the structures that line Main Street itself. For young professionals like PSNC Energy Marketing Brand Manager Hannah Maria Hayes, the area’s close proximity to work and downtown entertainment made the area ideal.
“I don’t have to fight traffic on I-26 each day, and I can go to Soda City Market on a Saturday then retreat back to my apartment … away from the city on the quiet side of town,” she says. “I think it’s the best of both worlds.”
The former New Yorker has visited a few restaurants near her apartment at the newly renovated NOMA Flats. And like everyone else, Hannah Maria can’t wait to see what pops up next on North Main Street.
“I heard about the Indah Coffee shop and thought, ‘I could open a quirky little gift shop or coffee shop here’ … you just get that feeling living here,” she says. “It’s not the Vista. It’s not downtown Columbia. It just has its own unique identity.”
Driving down North Main Street today offers a mix of old and new … renovated spaces and vacant buildings, historic buildings and new residences, classic architecture and design that’s a little more modern — all along one 5-mile stretch of road. At the center of all of this, those already in NOMA and those pondering a move there wait for the hustle and bustle of Columbia’s growing downtown scene to arrive.
“Five or 10 years from now, I would love to see 24/7 activity with office users, in addition to restaurants and retail as well as some residential dwellings,” says Frank. “A lot can happen out here in five or 10 years, and I don’t think it will take that long. The momentum is already here.”
North Main Street still has a long way to go, Hannah Maria says. “It’s not quite there yet, but you can just tell something is about to happen. It’s on the brink of something.”