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Business at Columbia mall quickly returned close to normal days after mass shooting

Columbiana Centre

A sign in Columbiana Centre reminds visitors of its no-weapons policy. The mall was the site of a shootout on April 16. Mike Fitts/Staff

COLUMBIA — Deana Brown has a wedding to attend this summer, and that means she needs a new dress. For the Orangeburg resident, there's one place to do that shopping: Columbiana Centre.

Brown made the hour-long trip to Columbia to do her shopping on April 21, less than a week after a shootout in the mall's hallway left nine people wounded and another six people trampled in the chaos.

Three men are in custody facing attempted murder and other charges.

Brown did not hesitate to make the trip despite the events of April 16. She classified what happened as a one-day event, not a continuing concern about the safety of Columbiana.

"This is the mall that I come to," Brown said.

For many in the Midlands, that seems to have been the overwhelming response to the mass shooting that made international news and closed the mall for the weekend. 

In the days since Columbiana reopened, the mall quickly moved back to a state of normalcy, so much so that shoppers would hardly notice anything amiss. 

A slow but steady stream of shoppers visited Columbiana on April 18, the first day the mall reopened after the shootout, amid added presence from mall security in the halls and parking areas. Extra police also were at the mall 10 miles northwest of downtown Columbia.

The attendance on that first day back open was about normal for a Monday, said Lindsay Kahn, spokeswoman for the mall's New York-based parent company, Brookfield Properties.

At least three businesses in the area of the shootout, including clothing stores The Gap and Francesca’s, did not reopen for the day. Clothing retailer Edge, which had one window boarded up in the wake of the incident, also was closed.

By April 20, the mall seemed very much back to normal with closed stores reopening and visitors returning.

Like many afternoons, numerous shoppers were visiting and eating in the food court, including groups of teens and families pushing strollers. 

Daryl Jones from Union passed the mall on the day of the shooting, seeing the area closed off amid a massive police response. That did not keep him from coming on April 21 for a little shopping.

"None whatsoever," Jones said when asked about concerns over visiting Columbiana.

Also at the mall April 21 was Carlos, a dog trained to sniff out firearms brought in by mall operators.

Guns are strictly forbidden at the shopping center, Kahn said, and anyone carrying a firearm detected by the dog will be asked to leave.

Mall management is taking steps, such as bringing in Carlos and adding private security, to reassure visitors.

"Safety is our priority," Kahn said.

Making that reassurance is key to Columbiana being able to put this incident behind it, said Carl Blackstone, chief executive of the Columbia Chamber.

"The onus is in them to make people feel safe and comfortable when shopping," Blackstone said.

Columbiana and the adjacent Harbison retail corridor are important for the region's business, supplying vital sales and accommodations tax revenue for Midlands governments, Blackstone noted. 

Sadly, Blackstone said, people have seen this kind of violence too often before. 

"In this country, we are too numb when it comes to gun violence," he said.

In America, such shootings have been happening so often that fatigue has set in, said Mathieu Deflem, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina.

People might feel comfortable coming back to the mall, perhaps with the assumption that security will be higher than normal, he said.

"Though not a daily event, sadly such incidents are indeed not as noteworthy or exceptional as they once were," Deflem said. "As to going to malls and public spaces in general, indeed, one cannot assume that every place is dangerous because we couldn’t go out at all anymore."

While shoppers seemed to return without concerns, the return to Columbiana may have been harder for employees.

Coming back to Columbiana early April 18 for reopening was eerie, according to Aimee Pawlick, an assistant manager at women's wear and accessories store Altar'd State.

During the shooting's aftermath, police had broken all locked store gates to make sure no one was in the shops, she said.

Some glass storefronts still were marked with an "X," a remnant of law enforcement's move to clear the mall. 

Some of her shop staff members were shaken and even tearful to come back to work, Pawlick said. 

Still, all the Altar'd State staff showed up to work in the ensuring week, which she considers a positive given the stress that they went through on the day of the shooting. 

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Follow Mike Fitts on Twitter at twitter.com/mikefittsat140. Write to him at mfitts@postandcourier.com