COLUMBIA — Five Points' fun and funky reputation once drew retailers looking for a space, but in recent years the nighttime crowds, particularly on Harden Street, have led some to pass in favor of locations nearer daytime customers.
“On this street, it’s clear to see there are a lot of businesses that are not open during the day,” Rox Pollard, retail services director for commercial real estate firm Colliers International, said while standing on Harden.
With vacant spaces on the market in Five Points numbering around eight, residents and business owners hope to break the cycle of late-night bars catering largely to college students. Six of those empty spots are on the bar-heavy Harden Street.
Right now, it's more profitable for landlords to turn over control to another bar owner. But a pilot program making its way through city government could make Five Points more like Main Street and the BullStreet District, bringing living and working spaces to the village.
Demand to locate in Five Points makes it an easy place to rent buildings, said Columbia businessman and property owner Richard Burts. He gets multiple calls a week from potential tenants to open in the district.
Rather than relying on that, advocates want the city to "give an extra shot of adrenaline to Five Points" by offering speedy permitting and an economic development package valued at up to $25,000, said Kit Smith, president of the Five Points Coalition of Neighborhoods.
Smith said the pilot program could smooth the way for the types of businesses, such as condominiums and breakfast spots, the neighbors say they want to see.
The area has attracted some of that already.
Columbia city staff sees the recent opening of Home Team BBQ, a barbecue chain that got its start in Charleston, as a huge success attracting a mixed demographic to the area. Publico, a Latin-Asian restaurant that started in Columbia and expanded to Atlanta, has been offered as another ideal with affordable eats. And, though not expected to be permanent, the relocation to Five Points of Tapp's Art Center, a visual and performing arts outlet, could be a draw.
Developers also are preparing to sink money into a series of shops across Harden Street from a Food Lion grocery store near the northern border of Five Points. Bookending the south side is a former state office building purchased by the city to secure another 300 nearby parking spaces.
If the city is able to roll that six-story building over into a hotel, Burts says it could become a huge catalyst that adds travelers to the area.
“You have grocery services, you have Walgreens, the post office, dry cleaning. You have everything you need,” Columbia City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said, making Five Points ripe for more market-rate apartments.
The district doesn't have the captive audience of high-rise workers like the city's Main Street district, where people might step out to go shopping or for an after-work happy hour. But Rickenmann said a shared-office business could fill that niche.
“Five Points is an iconic neighborhood village — probably the most widely recognized part of the city,” Rickenmann said. “The area hasn’t really been sold to outside investors.”
Rickenmann said recruitment of restaurants, similar to Home Team, with locations in Charleston or Charlotte, could make perfect additions. He sees the Horseshoe bar building on Harden Street and the former Master's Cleaner site on Blossom Street as prime spots for redevelopment.
"I think you’re going to be amazed about what happens over the next year," Burts said.
Most vacancies came from bars closing after legal battles to enforce state liquor laws brought by residents and aided by lawyer and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia.
When Harden Street was lined with bars, landlords found they didn't have to improve properties when businesses changed hands. Bar owners could make high margins selling cheap liquor and afford a higher rental rate while still turning a profit, Pollard said.
“You can just walk in, change the locks and now it’s yours,” said Steve Cook, president of the Five Points Association merchant group. “It’s happened for years.”
But trying to change a property's use can get complicated, Burts said. Small business owners attracted to the village environment often have fewer resources but are required to pay hefty sewer fees and follow strict parking requirements to move in.
"There are lots of procedures you have to go through," Burts said.
Much of the programming being suggested by advocates has been used within the city previously, just in a case-by-case manner, said Columbia Economic Development Director Ryan Coleman.
He questioned how much more of an impact those programs, with facade and interior improvement grants, could have. If the pilot program works, city staff suggests it could be used in other parts of Columbia.
City Manager Teresa Wilson said she wants to focus the energies of multiple departments — economic development, water, planning — to work together on business licensing and permitting. The goal is to keep potential business owners from getting bounced around between offices, whether they need an inspection or want to apply for sidewalk dining.
Fees are another hurdle, she said, so council could consider low- interest or forgivable loans to cover expenses such as grease-trap installation required by the city.
To address Five Points' limited parking, Wilson is recommending extended enforcement hours.
Wilson said the city's Office of Business Opportunities would administer the plan and she's asking for a new, full-time business liaison position. She wants the pilot program to have a business recruitment function, as well.
When the neighborhoods initiated the idea of cleaning up Five Points, Smith said they got a lot of blowback.
“People said we were elitist and that we were ruining Five Points,” she said. “But we’re not going to have a ghost town."