COLUMBIA — When Ung Kim opened a Korean grocery on Columbia's Decker Boulevard three decades ago, the street was a thriving commercial corridor featuring big retailers like Target and Kroger.
Decker benefited from a prime location in Columbia's northeast, where it connected Fort Jackson and Interstate 77 to a successful Columbia Place Mall.
Now the big box stores are mostly gone and so are the mall's anchors, some of which has been acquired by the Richland County government.
Another big merchant will leave soon with Staples set to close on Decker in early September. The back of the office supply store bears a mural that celebrates the area's diversity.
But Decker got a second act with the official designation by Richland County as a home for diverse businesses. Signs along the 2½-mile roadway declare the area as Decker International Boulevard.
In an effort to curb traffic, the fastest-growing county in the Midlands is limiting the number of homes per acre it allows in the expanding and largely affluent neighborhoods rising between the city of Lexington and Lake Murray.
Decker has continued to support dozens of businesses with international flavor from Mexican restaurants to African hair braiding and a range of Asian dining options, even as its time as a major shopping destination has gone, with retailers moving further out into the suburbs.
Jim Manning, who helped lead the push to give the street its international designation as he sought to win his first election to Richland County Council in 2008, said the designation was made "to embrace the incredible diversity represented along that corridor."
Meanwhile, the shopping center that once housed Kroger and Target now has Richland County court facilities and a self-storage operation.
The area could get a further boost if revitalization plans for the nearby mall went forward on a major scale, Manning said.
The county's initial plan was to locate many of its offices there, a move that has stalled.
Manning would like to see the area get a larger push forward, not only from more government offices but also from retail recruitment, similar to what it being done at Columbia's BullStreet District, the former state Department of Mental Health property that is being converted into a multi-use neighborhood.
Such a broader project could provide more growth for the area than the county's former plan for the mall, which was very government-focused, Manning said.
More visitors have meant a stronger market for fine dining in Columbia, but it's still vital to keep prices reasonable and win over the locals, longtime mainstays in the field say.
Another challenge for the Decker corridor has been issues with crime, said state Rep. Beth Bernstein, a Democrat who has Decker on the edge of her district. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has been helping the situation, Bernstein said, by aggressively shutting down a business that he believes has been a hotspot for illegal activity in the area.
In June, Lott used his authority to close the Mi Casita restaurant at 2205 Decker, saying it was a public nuisance because of dozens of incidents in which deputies were called.
Even as big retailers have left Decker, numerous different international businesses have continued to thrive in the area.
Having so many different ethnic businesses next to each other helps to attract customers, Kim said, and his grocery supplies some items to the Korean restaurants along Decker. Some shoppers even visit the Hispanic supermarket in the same shopping center when they come to Hyundai, he said.
"They come in here and these customers come in there," Kim said.