After years of watching downtown Columbia’s revival, West Columbia is beginning to see shops move to its side of the Congaree River. The success of restaurants inside the “West Vista” around State and Meeting streets has been vital in attracting those new businesses.
By Antoine Thomas
May, 1 2015
After watching businesses flow toward Columbia’s Vista and Five Points, West Columbia is starting to see other shops join the cluster of restaurants in the “West Vista” around State and Meeting streets.
Restaurants Cafe Strudel and Al’s Upstairs led the way, joining the longtime stalwart of State Street, New Brookland Tavern, a popular live-music bar. Then Terra restaurant and 116 Espresso & Wine Bar followed. Now, newer businesses like Gallery West and eyewear store Frame of Mind have taken over some of the spaces.
The area has had its failures too, such as restaurants Tea and Red Door Tavern. But Cafe Strudel owner Trip Turbyfill said the goal was always to bring more people to the area, not just to his almost 20-year-old restaurant.
“I don’t need to have everybody in Lexington and Richland county to come into the restaurant,” Turbyfill said. “I just need a portion of them to make a living.”
Frame of Mind owner Mark Plessinger moved from Columbia’s Main Street when the building his shop was in was put up for sale. He said the West Vista’s cost and space availability were important, but also important was people saying the area was blossoming.
“Everybody says that State Street is the next big thing,” he said. “I’ve been open for seven and a half years, and it’s one of the things I’ve always heard.”
But for the West Vista to gain foot traffic similar to that of Columbia’s Vista, West Columbia must find ways to get even more businesses into the area, said Jerry Mitchell, a University of South Carolina geography professor who specializes in tourism.
“There’s a reason why the tall buildings are right downtown – it’s because that’s the most valuable real estate,” Mitchell said. “It’s the most accessible, and it’s where everybody can get to easily.”
What the city does with “the pit,” the 4-acre lot along Meeting Street that greets those coming over the Gervais Street bridge, could be key to the West Vista’s future.
It’s the “gateway into our city,” said West Columbia’s economic development director, Donna Smith, and is “the catalyst for what’s considered the original part of the city.”
Various development plans have fallen through, partly victims of the Great Recession, but the city now is moving to sell the lot to Estate Properties, which has had several other successes in the Midlands. Details of what is anticipated as a mixed use of residential, retail and office space are expected by the end of the year, Smith said.
Mitch Terry, who lives on Sortwell Street, said West Vista residents would shop locally, if the shops were there. The West Vista needs improvements so more businesses will come now that apartment complexes are rising around the area, he said.
“There’s a lot of things right up in this corridor within a mile of my place that are either empty or they could be upgraded fairly simply,” Terry said. “And it would keep the aesthetic quality of being in West Columbia and Cayce because it’s a lot of old tradition here.”
The city’s 2012
redevelopment plan (PDF) said it was important to improve the area, and about $1.2 million has been spent on better sidewalks, new lighting and new traffic signals, much of it from grants. The rest, about $172,000, came from the city.
Leo Redmond, director of neighboring Cayce’s historical museum, said the West Vista’s commercial buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries evoke that neighborhood feel some business owners want.
“It’s just a feeling you don’t have except in a small town,” Redmond said.
The neighborhood appeal was important to Turbyfill, a Cayce native. Cafe Strudel’s success led Turbyfill to expand his restaurant to larger buildings twice, but always in the West Vista.
“I know this area well and just really like the old buildings and neighborhood feel and all, and that’s why we wanted to stay here,” Turbyfill said.
About a decade passed before Terra opened, and 116 Espresso & Wine Bar joined the West Vista a few years later.
Al’s Upstairs is the old-timer. The Italian restaurant with spectacular views of Columbia’s skyline at sunset has been wedged into a tiny triangle of land for 36 years at Meeting Street and Sunset Boulevard. Owner Al Loftis, who also grew up around the area, said he enjoys the friendly competition because ultimately the restaurants all help each other.
“It’s been very good for our area, and it drives a lot of traffic around this building to get to their buildings,” Loftis said. “So I think it’s a win-win.”
Gallery West owner Sara Cogswell said she was eating outside at 116 Espresso & Wine Bar when she noticed the available building beside it. Cogswell opened her shop last June and coordinates gallery events when the restaurants are open. Their ability to draw customers from all over the Midlands was a big reason she picked the West Vista.
“I wouldn’t have moved here if it hadn’t been for the restaurants,” Cogswell said. “If I had to depend on just the population here, I don’t think I could make it.”