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2020 Vision: Stories to Follow As a New Decade Dawns in Columbia

statehouse-john-carlos (copy) (copy)

The S.C. Statehouse in Columbia.

Calendars are a construct. They’re a human conceptualization of the passage of time, incremented into 365-day intervals because laps around the sun and cycles of seasons make it easy for us to chart our movement through the fourth dimension.

But in truth, few things begin or end when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1. And so it is in Columbia.

Legislative issues continue to grind along, hopefully making some modicum of progress in the upcoming session. Development projects see spurts of progress and stints of stagnation — sometimes on their way to completion. Universities make moves to secure their future — some met with more support than others. The cultural landscape continues through shifts both big and small.

But while the turning of the calendar might not, in and of itself, mark any significant moment as it applies to these topics, it remains a time for reflection and for looking forward. Caught as we are in this construct of our own making, it’s impossible not to spend some time in the dwindling days of the year puzzling on what might come next for our fair city.

With that in mind, Free Time offers this primer, setting the table for some of the stories we anticipate shaping the conversation in 2020. — Jordan Lawrence

Biden Emily Clyburn Homegoing Morris Brown AME

Former Vice President Joe Biden leaves Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston following a September Homegoing Service for Emily Clyburn, wife of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. 

Early Returns: S.C. prepares for democratic primary

A day hardly goes by in South Carolina without a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate (or a surrogate) campaigning in the early-voting state.

The field has dropped to 15 hopefuls — from a high of 25 — with few signs of shrinking significantly in the new year.

But three contenders have separated themselves from the field for South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary: former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Their average age is 75.

The race’s youngest candidate, 37-year-old South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is by himself in the next tier. The remaining candidates are grabbing less than 6 percent of support each.

Biden, South Carolina’s front-runner since before he formally joined the race, needs the Palmetto State as a firewall given his struggles in Iowa and New Hampshire. Super Tuesday, on which primaries in 14 more states will take place, is three days after the Palmetto State contest, meaning the winner could carry significant momentum into Democratic presidential race’s most decisive day.

Biden’s South Carolina lead among likely primary voters has dwindled in recent months as the more progressive Sanders and Warren have made up ground, according to Post and Courier-Change Research polls. His lead is down to 7 percentage points in December from a high of 31 percentage points in May.

Biden is buoyed by heavy support among African Americans, who make up two-thirds of S.C. Democratic primary voters. Still, if either Warren or Sanders dropped out, a majority of their S.C. supporters would go the other top progressive rather than Biden, the poll showed.

Healthcare insurance and access, a major platform for both Sanders and Warren, remains the top concern of S.C. Democrats — far ahead of climate, minority rights, guns and education.

Hoping for an upset like in 2008 when Barack Obama topped heavily favored Hillary Clinton? At this point in the race, the New York senator and former first lady held roughly a 10 point lead on the first-term senator from Illinois. The tide turned for Obama in the weeks just before the Iowa caucus, so watch what happens in that Midwest contest on Feb. 3.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren addresses the South Carolina Democratic convention at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in June. 

An interesting note on the latest S.C. primary race is that Democrat billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, a pair of late arrivals to the campaign, combined to get 8 percent of the backing in the latest Post and Courier-Change Research poll.

The Palmetto State seems to have a thing for billionaire presidential candidates, as seen in the 2016 election.

Speaking of which, Republican President Donald Trump doesn’t need to do anything in South Carolina since the state GOP called off the primary even though he has a couple of challengers. The party cited saving more than $1 million in taxpayer dough when the outcome of the primary is obvious, and a court backed the GOP.

After Feb. 29, South Carolina will become a presidential campaign desert.

The heavily Republican state (with its nine electoral votes) does not get much attention in the general election. But the action won’t be so far away. North Carolina is seen as something of a tossup, and Charlotte will host the Republican National Convention. — Andy Shain

Closer to Home: Richland Penny, Finlay Park, elections loom in local government

As a new year — and a new decade — dawns, a question lingers for Richland County’s government: Can it finally get a handle on the Transportation Penny program, which has been wracked with controversy and rancor since its very inception?

The penny tax was narrowly approved by county voters in a contentious 2012 referendum, and is intended to, over the course of two decades, raise more than $1 billion for roads and transportation projects, and provide funding for the regional bus system. 

Jim Manning

Jim Manning’s seat on Richland County Council will be up for grabs in 2020.

But the penny program has been dogged with investigations, audits, lawsuits and accusations of mismanagement for years. Most recently, preliminary audit findings from the South Carolina Department of Revenue indicate the county may have misspent up to $40 million in penny funding. As noted in a copy of the preliminary audit posted to The State’s website, penny funding was used for a number of allegedly ineligible expenditures, including cars, cameras, an icemaker, a newspaper subscription, HVAC repair, intern breakfasts, computers, cellphones and much more. The findings also note that penny funds paid for nearly $1 million in unnecessary public relations efforts. The county and the revenue department are still in negotiations over the audit.

2020 will mark the first full year the county will manage the penny program in-house after a consortium of private companies known as the Program Development Team was contracted to manage it the previous five years. The county parted ways with those private companies in November. With the county now having a more hands-on approach to the penny — and as it continues to haggle with the revenue department about those audit findings — 2020 will likely be a critical year for the much-maligned $1 billion effort.

The coming year will also feature elections for a number of seats on Richland County Council, including District 2 (currently held by Joyce Dickerson), District 3 (Yvonne McBride), District 7 (Gwen Kennedy), District 8 (Jim Manning), District 9 (Chip Jackson) and District 10 (Dalhi Myers). At least one incumbent — Manning, who has served three terms on Council — has announced he will not seek re-election in 2020, instead choosing to focus on his consulting business. One hopeful — South Carolina State University trustee Hamilton Grant — has already announced intentions to seek Manning’s seat.

Meanwhile, Columbia City Council in 2020 is likely to take action on a first step toward finally remodeling aging, battered Finlay Park. 

Finlay Park revamp render

A map of a proposed revamp of Columbia’s Finlay Park

Once the so-called “Crown Jewel” of the city’s parks system, the 18-acre Finlay Park, which is bordered by Assembly, Laurel, Taylor and Gadsden streets downtown, has long been in a state of disrepair. Most visibly, the picturesque spiral fountain at the top of the park along Laurel Street has been shut down for years. The park also has become a frequent gathering spot for large swaths of the city’s homeless population.

But there are signals of a rebirth of Finlay. In October, Mayor Steve Benjamin and city staff announced preliminary plans for an $18 million overhaul of the park. The proposal included a reimagined parking lot near Laurel Street; a significant redesign of the park’s pond; the establishment of a pair of picturesque streams; the construction of shelters, restrooms, plazas and a new stage; new waterfall amenities; and the construction of a new, large “destination” playground, with a nearby splash pad, among other features. The city also is still in negotiations with the U.S. National Whitewater Center about the center potentially operating an as-yet-unidentified recreational amenity in the park.

However, City Council must first formally approve a definitive plan for the park, and finalize how the city will pay for the revamp. City Councilman Howard Duvall tells Free Times Council will likely vote to develop detailed construction plans for the site in early 2020. It would be a key step in making the “Crown Jewel” shine once more. — Chris Trainor

Changing Palates: Food scene looks forward

In 2019, the Columbia food scene saw new restaurants open that subverted typical notions of local palates and brought bar goers to city rooftops. As the calendar flips to a new decade, what can we expect from local eateries moving forward? 

Free Times put this question to several area chefs and industry players how they thought the food scene would evolve in 2020.

shrimp salad Spotted Salamander

Shrimp Salad Stuffed Avocado Salad at Spotted Salamander

Sourcing: Local and Sustainable

The scene should see continued entrenchment of sustainable practices in dining — from minimizing waste to farm-to-table ingredients — Spotted Salamander chef-owner Jessica Shillato posits. 

“Over the past two or three years it’s been a huge fad,” she says. “I really hope it doesn’t go away. … It’s good for so many reasons.” 

Steve Cook, owner of Saluda’s in Five Points, echoes the sentiment, and says that joining the farm-to-table movement has become an expectation for high-end restaurants. At this point, it’s an expectation, not a selling point, he says. 

That’s for the best and signals that local chefs are being more conscientious in their sourcing, says Motor Supply Co. Bistro executive chef Wesley Fulmer. 

“If it’s entrenched, you’re not feeling so good about your practices if you’re getting your vegetables from California,” he offers.

Broadening Tastes

In his first year at Main Street’s Hendrix, executive chef Javier Uriarte says he’s endeavored to challenge diners with flavors from his home country of Peru fused with other cuisines. On any given day, Uriarte’s kitchen is pairing his paella with Peruvian arroz con mariscos (seafood rice) and offering up a Peruvian potato tapa. 

He expects local diners will continue to seek new tastes in the new year and have come to appreciate oft-shifting menus.

“[Customers] have been very open to things I’ve been trying at the restaurant,” he reports. “More and more [chefs] are less afraid to bring that risk.” 

Fusion’s popularity is a longstanding trend, but it will come with more “precision” in the future, Fulmer speculates. 

“It’s not going to be French/Asian, it’s going to be more like French/Vietnamese,” he explains, saying this is largely due to growing food knowledge throughout society. 

Shifting Vista

While Columbia’s food scene mostly blossomed in 2019, the last months of the year brought a smattering of closings to The Vista, one of the city’s main entertainment districts. 

In the last two months of 2019, the neighborhood lost longtime restaurant and dessert favorite Nonnah’s, the craft beer hubs Casual Pint and Flying Saucer, and Mexican/Japanese fusion restaurant TakoSushi. The close proximity of these closings created poor optics, says Abby Naas, executive director of the Congaree Vista Guild, a nonprofit that promotes the neighborhood and its businesses. 

She suggests the district is poised to rebound for a strong 2020. The neighborhood and its surrounding area is set to add new hotels and new off-campus student housing in the next couple of years, and a new event center opened in November. Naas says that she expects these additions to bring more foot traffic to the Vista, and make existing vacant businesses enticing for potential tenants. 

“There’s a lot of excitement with the growth of those and how many more people that will bring to the area,” she says.

Growing Profile

Columbia’s food scene has long sat far behind the prestige of South Carolina dining gem Charleston. It’s unlikely that will change in the immediate future, but Fulmer says the scene has come far since the ’80s and ’90s and continues to grow. 

“I think that it’s a matter of coming of age, more so than a breakthrough,” he reasons.

Both Uriarte and Shillato say they think the city can grow into a legitimate culinary tourism destination.

“I feel like people just skip over Columbia,” Uriarte admits. “I couldn’t tell you why. I could tell you that it will happen here, hopefully [chefs] around town can make that difference ... make the culinary scene that much better.” — David Clarey

Caslen at podium

USC President Robert Caslen

Spurs Up: As Caslen and Muschamp hope for a better year, USC gets ready to drink

The University of South Carolina will start selling alcohol at sporting events next month after a year when many on campus could have used a drink.

The search for a new president was troubled (no female finalists, Gov. Henry McMaster’s lobbying, hiring a retired general who doesn’t have a Ph.D) that could lead to some big changes on the USC board in 2020.

Two bills introduced by S.C. House and Senate leaders would cut the number of trustees by nearly half — making it the smallest college board in the state. One of the bills would also remove the governor from the board. Instead, the state’s CEO would have two formal appointments to the board of South Carolina’s largest college, which is really no change since the governor already has one appointment and names a designee in his or her place.

For those upset about McMaster’s meddling in the recent presidential search, reducing the size of the USC board would give him more sway. McMaster names 10 percent of the board (two of 20) now. With the realignment, he would appoint 17 or 18 percent of the board (either two of 11 or two of 12) depending on the bill in the General Assembly.

One feature of both bills, however, should please search critics. The proposals would kick out current trustees — some of whom have been on the board for three decades — to make way for new elections.

Meanwhile, USC will learn in January what is expected from accreditors who did not sanction the school for McMaster’s lobbying but are looking for improvement in board oversight. The university avoided punishment by proactively hiring consultants to better train trustees and strengthen rules to avoid conflicts.

Caslen will use the new year to reboot his rough introduction from the controversial search. The 65-year-old retired West Point superintendent wants to bolster USC’s research through new military-related work, notably with the cybersecurity command center at Fort Gordon, just over the South Carolina border in Georgia.

Caslen hopes the work will erase his own rocky start as president where he made comments that appeared to question the future of Gamecock head football coach Will Muchamp.

Muschamp received a mulligan after a 4-8 season with one of the nation’s toughest schedules and a number of injuries.

He is making a $2 million bet on himself in 2020 that he can turn around the Gamecocks. Muschamp agreed to forgo his $200,000 annual raise through 2024 that would lower his buyout by $2 million if he is fired after another disappointing season.

During games next year, USC fans will be able to hold a cup of beer or a glass of wine when they raise their hands at the end of the alma mater. Following an August decision by the SEC to lift a ban on alcohol sales at the sports venues of its member institutions, the Gamecocks will start serving beer and wine during basketball games next month, planning to extend the practice to baseball and football games later in the year.

The sales are expected to generate about $1 million in profit for the university, not including new marketing and sponsorship deals. — Andy Shain

Back in Session: Education issues take center stage at the Statehouse

South Carolina’s 2020 legislative session may boil down to two things: money and campaigning. 

State legislative leaders in both chambers hope efforts to modernize South Carolina’s K-12 education system take priority when the Legislature resumes Jan. 14. A pared-down version of a bill passed by the House last year — which makes changes to teacher preparation, student testing and accountability — will be up for debate on the Senate floor, following months of review by that chamber’s education committee.

But even with large chunks removed, the bill is sure to face a lengthy floor fight, as teachers — led by freshman state Sen. Mike Fanning of Great Falls, a former teacher and director of an education nonprofit — oppose it as not making the kinds of changes they want. The teachers’ advocacy group SC for Ed, which grew quickly over social media and organized May’s 10,000-strong protest, is already planning a lobby day at the Statehouse in late January. 

Teacher walkout

The state legislature will look to avoid another teacher walkout like the one that happened in May. 

And the group has set a March 17 deadline for legislators to take action on eight demands — the first being salary increases. Others include protecting teachers who speak out from retaliation, limiting class sizes and providing more teacher work days.    

Both Gov. Henry McMaster and House leaders, including Speaker Jay Lucas, are backing a plan to boost every teacher’s salary by $3,000 next year. And the Senate’s version of the massive education bill would add five days of planning time to teachers’ school year. But little, if anything, education-related will be settled by mid-March, certainly not the budget, which won’t even reach the Senate Finance Committee until early April. So one question for the session is whether the passing deadline would prompt teachers to leave their classrooms to protest again en masse.      

With an additional estimated $1.8 billion to spend next year, the biggest fights will likely be over how to spend it. State agencies’ official budget requests — submitted before the state’s largest surplus was announced — already sought $1 billion more than what’s available. 

And the state’s more than 50,000 K-12 teachers aren’t the only public employees seeking raises. Advocates for the 60,000 employees of state agencies, who have received just three across-the-board, cost-of-living raises in the last decade, argue they’re long overdue for big bumps in pay. They’re looking for legislators to overhaul a payscale system unchanged since 1995. 

“It seems to me if you do something significant for teachers, you have to do something significant for state employees, because they’re in worse shape financially,” says Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican.  

Also look for fights on whether to give money back to taxpayers through tax cuts, as McMaster insists. Some legislators also want to tackle another round of changes to public pensions next year.  

“The timing is right to make changes [on taxes and pensions], but realistically you’re dealing with a shorter window,” Massey says. 

That’s because all 170 senators and House members are up for re-election in 2020.

At least some legislators won’t want to take a vote that’s at all controversial before filing ends in March, in hopes of avoiding a challenger. And those who do attract a primary opponent may want to tread lightly ahead of the June primaries — if they’re even in the chamber to vote. They may be out on the campaign trail. 

The regular session is set to end May 14. — Seanna Adcox

BullStreet Babcock distant view

The Babcock Building — the backdrop to Columbia Fireflies games at Segra Park — is set to be turned into apartments, a project that should break ground in 2020.

Build the Future: Many new development projects set to get underway

As a fresh decade begins, new development continues to reshape Soda City.

City and tourism leaders have set their sites on 2020 as the year they finally expand the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, breaking ground near the end of the year if funding can be secured.

Expansion of the 142,500-square-foot center, the smallest in the state, has been discussed for several years.

Experience Columbia, the city’s convention and tourism organization, has said it would like to add another 75,000 square feet to prevent the loss of existing events and failing to win others due to insufficient space.

In 2016, the convention center had to turn down nine events because the center was too small, resulting in $2.5 million in lost economic impact for the region.

That’s not to say the center has been doing poorly. The venue consistently operates six days a week and held 380 events in 2018, Experience Columbia CEO Bill Ellen says, compared to 360 in 2016.

Mayor Steve Benjamin has said the city plans to extend a fee on hotel rooms to help pay for the project, in addition to requesting funding from the state Legislature, similar to the $5 million Greenville received for a proposed new downtown convention center.

Related to the convention center, Columbia developer Ben Arnold announced plans for two hotels along Gervais Street in The Vista.

Arnold in August said he would build the city’s first four-star hotel, the 150-room Hotel Anthem, set to include three bars/restaurants. Hotel Anthem is expected to open in 2021. 

He’s also said he’s reserving land on the same site for another possible hotel catering to convention traffic with 300 to 400 rooms. Talks about having University of South Carolina hospitality students run some of the hotel operations are in preliminary stages. Development of the hotel hinges on the convention center’s expansion. 

On the south side of town is a redevelopment of the Capital City Stadium site with apartments and some retail, expected to begin work in 2020. 

And much activity is afoot in the oft-scrutinized BullStreet development, on the site of the state’s former mental hospital, where more work has been announced for 2020. Conversion of the historic Babcock building, with its high red cupola, to more than 200 apartments is expected to get underway, with completion anticipated by 2021. 

Elsewhere on the BullStreet grounds could be another 260 apartments with construction starting in early 2020. And construction has already begun on a space for the development’s first major retailer, REI. — Jessica Holdman

Cirque du soleil CRYSTAL

Cirque du Soleil will bring Crystal to the Colonial Life Arena in July.

Set the Stage: Entering 2020, Columbia’s performance landscape continues to grow

The question has changed since I arrived in Columbia six years ago. 

Back then, the prevailing query was, “Why don’t we get the big shows and events that come to Charlotte and Atlanta?” Now, it’s, “How are we getting so many big shows and events?”

Indeed, while Columbia remains a not-so-big town surrounded by bigger, more-established markets, the live performance landscape is now dotted with a substantial number of attention-grabbing names — Elton John, Cirque du Soleil, Ariana Grande, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, The Raconteurs, Trey Songz, Hootie & the Blowfish, Cardi B, Weezer and the Pixies, and P!NK all came to town in 2019.

Whether the tide turned with the 2016 wave of bathroom bills barring transgender individuals from using the restroom that conformed to their gender identity — North Carolina passed one, South Carolina did not, perhaps allowing Columbia a foot in the door as major tours bypassed Tar Heel State markets such as Charlotte and Asheville and Raleigh in protest — or Columbia is simply reaping the rewards of maintaining attractive venues such as Colonial Life Arena and the Township Auditorium, the city’s entertainment bookings certainly look better at the close of the 2010s than they did in the middle.

Of all the venues in Columbia, none has made more visible progress than Colonial Life. After a few years of increasingly impressive calendars, it enters 2020 set for another high-water mark. Elton John brings an unexpected second Columbia date on his farewell tour (May 22), and Alan Jackson (Jan. 11), Jason Aldean (Jan. 30), KISS and David Lee Roth (Feb. 11), Post Malone (Feb. 29), the Winter Jam Christian tour (Mar. 8), Alabama (July 10), and a stop on the Millenium Tour featuring Omarion, Bow Wow, Ashanti, Ying Yang Twins, Lloyd, Sammie, Pretty Ricky and Soulja Boy (April 12) are already on tap for the new year.

Elton John

Elton John returns to Colonial Life Arena on May 22.

Township isn’t without its early-year highlights, either, standing ready to deliver imminently talented guitarist Joe Bonamasa (Feb. 15) and legendary singer Diana Ross (Feb. 26), among other 2020 dates.

And it’s not all big concerts in Columbia. Colonial Life also brings Cirque du Soleil for the second year in a row (the Crystal show is in town July 15-19), and the Broadway in Columbia series at the Koger Center kicks off its 2020 selections with the much-ballyhooed musical Wicked (Jan. 22-Feb. 9).

The comedy scene also enters the new year with a fresh jolt of life in the form of the intimate new West Columbia club The Comedy Closet. Add that to Decker Boulevard’s long-established Comedy House, big-time dates from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld (Mar. 7 at Township), Martin Lawrence (bringing the Lit AF tour to Colonial Life on Feb. 14), Jeff Dumhan (Mar. 4 at Colonial Life) and Mike Epps (leading the Fabulously Funny Comedy Festival at Colonial Life on April 17), and a variety of frequent comedy programming at spots like Curiosity Coffee Bar and Columbia Craft Brewing Company, and the area’s laughs landscape looks as full as it’s ever been. — Jordan Lawrence 


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David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

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