COLUMBIA — On Saturday, crowds will surround the area around Williams-Brice Stadium for the University of South Carolina-Alabama game. Hours after the fans go home, though, this still mostly industrial district of the city will go back to work.
The Bluff Road area of Columbia's southeast has been dominated by warehouses and other industrial uses for decades, and that continues today, even after student housing and condo developments have made their way in, according to Chuck Salley, director of industrial brokerage in Columbia for Colliers real estate.
"I still see it as a very, very viable industrial corridor," Salley said.
Even with the addition of housing, businesses are still finding that it makes sense to be in the area because of its easy connections both to downtown Columbia and Interstate 77, he said.
When Jushi USA, a fiberglass company that is an offshoot of a Chinese firm, decided to come to Richland County, it built its new facility on Bluff Road near the I-77 interchange.
Demand for the real estate in the stadium area is so strong that rents are increasing and vacancies are few. The area's vacancy rate is just 3.4 percent, according to research from Colliers. Much of that available space is in one site where it is available for sublease, Salley said.
Many of the tenants for these properties continue to be involved in industry and logistics, though some reinvention projects for office uses such as the Softdocs data management building on Bluff Road have been brought into the area.
Some of the older warehouse space along Bluff near the S.C. State Fairgrounds were built as an industrial park by the CSX railroad, with easy connections to its rails. Those buildings came with attached offices that are too large or totally unneeded for many modern warehouse users, Salley said.
Those spaces facing the street can be converted to a more public use, such as the Yoga Masala studio that came to the district in 2011. The area's quick connections to customers from the USC campus and downtown make that a workable use of the space, Salley said.
In the past decade, privately run student housing and condos that overlook the stadium came to the district, as they did to many Southern college towns. The condos were particularly attractive to those who wanted to have a place to stay in Columbia that was perfect for football Saturdays, but some tenants use theirs full time.
The growth of student housing near I-77, connected to the USC campus via private shuttle buses, seems to have slowed, Salley said. In-town competition from developments closer to campus seems to have become more popular, he said.
Two projects that are closer to downtown are underway in the district.
One is the conversion of a long-closed Shop Road warehouse into 500 more student apartments. The other is a commercial proposal for the former site of the minor league ballpark, a property that belongs to the city.
The long-vacant Capital City Stadium on Assembly Street would be demolished under a plan to bring more apartments and retail space into the edge of downtown, not far from the recent growth of the USC campus.
Beyond these projects, it's hard for a redevelopment that takes out industrial or warehouse space to make the numbers work when taking out tenants with leases, he said.
While the influx of student housing and condos did bring more residents to the area, Salley still doesn't see enough traffic in the area to support much more retail growth, especially with how quiet it is on weekends outside of football and State Fair days.
"It's a ghost town, unless it's one of the six football days," Salley said.
Heather Bauer, co-owner of Workhorse Fitness near the stadium, has seen increasing signs of life in the three years the gym has been in the area. Members like to stop at one of the nearby breweries to relax after an afternoon workout, she said.
"There is a little community out there," Bauer said.
Workhorse chose the area because it is convenient to downtown but rents were half what they are in the city core itself, she said.
Those football days provide a bonus for those who have properties in the Bluff Road area. Many of the area's businesses add to their bottom line by renting parking spaces for gameday tailgating. It's also a benefit for employees if they can use their workplaces as a parking site within walking distance of Williams-Brice.
KW Beverage, the longtime distributor of Budweiser beer in Columbia, continues to use its Bluff Road site, though its growth has made it a crowded one, Salley said.
Having a location for gameday events has prompted the distributor to continue to make its cramped site near the stadium work, he said.