COLUMBIA — Columbia's first high-rise, four-star hotel is heading to the growing Vista district as the first part of a major redevelopment of 12 acres downtown that could push expansion of its convention center.
Developer Ben Arnold, a Columbia native who has completed several major projects in the Midlands, has proposed an 11-story, 150-room full-service hotel on a block his company owns on Gervais Street. The area is next to the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
On Tuesday, his project received approval to exceed height requirements for the Vista restaurant and shopping area from the city's Board of Zoning Appeals. The $40 million project would bring 300 construction and 125 permanent jobs, according to the developer. The hotel will include three bars/restaurants, including a planned speakeasy bar below ground level.
The hotel could open by the end of 2021. It would be the city's first four-star hotel, which means such amenities as a concierge desk, a sit-down restaurant connected to the lobby, and a rooftop bar and terrace.
Arnold's proposal for Hotel Anthem, under the Hilton chain's tapestry brand of boutique properties, is the first part of a redevelopment of the site. In its application, Arnold Development asserted that the full height of the building will not loom over the street because it is set back from Gervais Street and will be screened by other portions of the project.
The hotel would rise parallel to the historic grain elevators of Adluh Flour that have stood over the Vista for decades. The Hilton would be connected to the historic former railroad depot that now houses Wet Willie's.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for Columbia and the Vista," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
Arnold sees the hotel as tying into the city's strong demand for hotel rooms. Two hotels already are under construction in the downtown area, even as the city continues to have high demand, especially with more business travelers.
The downtown year-round average occupancy rate for hotels is 74 percent, considered high by industry standards.
In Arnold's larger plan, much of the site would be open for redevelopment along with public plaza areas and green space. How Arnold develops the site over the next five years depends on whether the community decides to expand the city's convention center, which leaders in Columbia have been discussing for some time.
“We’re reserving land for now under hopes that the convention center will expand," Arnold said.
The site could add a second hotel that caters to convention traffic, Arnold said. A convention-oriented hotel would do business, in part, by reserving large blocs of rooms for events to use, up to two years in advance.
The site also could provide parking for the convention center, which was designed to leave room for future expansion by building out into its adjacent parking lot. If Arnold's project provides substantial infrastructure such as public parking, it could qualify for the recently extended tax break for projects that include such work.
Arnold believes the convention center's expansion makes great sense.
“Even if the numbers are half what we think they could be, it’s still a good idea," he said.
Arnold said he could put apartments on the site instead of waiting for local government to act, but he wants to see if Columbia sees an opportunity to reach a larger civic goal.
Now is the time to get the convention center expansion done, said Bob Coble, who was mayor of Columbia when the convention center was constructed, opening in 2004.
Now he's an attorney for the firm that often represents the convention center authority.
"Clearly, the need is there," Coble said.
Still to be resolved is how to fund the expansion. There are multiple avenues available for the city and Richland County to figure out how to get that done, Benjamin said. One option is a three-cent tourism development fee that already is charged on hotel stays.
The convention center has been heavily booked, managers say, and sits amid the Vista district surrounded by the Colonial Life Arena, other recently added University of South Carolina buildings, and a thriving restaurant and bar district.
Tourism promotion agency Experience Columbia is conducting a study to assess how big an expansion would be right for the convention center, according to Jason Outman. The convention center has lost events that had to move because they had outgrown the center's space, Outman said.
The convention center needs a boost in full-service hotel space to meet the needs of any expansion, since a majority of Columbia's 127 hotels offer limited services, according to Experience Columbia spokeswoman Charlene Slaughter.
Arnold believes that the community is showing the kind of cooperation that would be needed to get an expansion of the convention center done.
“There’s a new tone around here that I’ve never seen in my 30 years of business or in my 52 years of living here,” Arnold said. “Columbia is going to work together on this, it appears, but we have a long way to go.”
Jessica Holdman contributed to this report.