Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and other city officials announced on Thursday an $18 million plan to revamp battered, aging Finlay Park.
The announcement comes as the city remains in negotiations with the U.S. National Whitewater Center about operating an as-yet-unidentified amenity in a portion of the park, near Taylor Street.
Finlay Park, which is bordered by Assembly, Laurel, Taylor and Gadsden streets, has been a thorn in the side of City Council for quite a while. The 18-acre park was once a showpiece for the Capital City — it was once referred to as the "Crown Jewel" of the city's park system — but has long faced various bouts of disrepair. For example, the picturesque spiral fountain at the top of the park along Laurel Street — which has been used on postcards and promotional materials for the city — has been shut down for years. The park also has become a frequent gathering spot for large swaths of the city's homeless population.
The city has flirted with the idea of redevelopment of the park for years, but Thursday's announcement was the most significant move forward in some time.
"Finlay Park has been, at least for the last few decades, very much connected with the psyche of the city, who we aspire to be," Benjamin said. "Right now, because of the growth we are seeing in the central business district and also the Vista, represents a really great opportunity to connect the city in a meaningful way."
City landscape architect and park planner Todd Martin detailed a number of plans for a revamped Finlay, including 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.
All of the city's plans announced Thursday would exist in addition to the would-be public-private partnership with the Whitewater Center, initially whispered about almost a year ago. City officials indicated that, should the Whitewater Center deal come to pass, the recreation entity would have a large role in helping determine programming for the park.
City Council would have to approve the plan for Finlay Park, and finalize how the city will pay for it. City Manager Teresa Wilson says she anticipates Council will begin having those discussions in meetings before the end of the year.
"The exact structure of how we do it is still to be determined by Council," Benjamin said regarding how the park overhaul would be financed. "But, it's very affordable, and can be paid for 100 percent."
The mayor insisted the city's plan would be "very complimentary" to what the Whitewater Center could do at the park.
Assistant City Manager Henry Simons said, once city staff has final approval, construction in the reimagined park would be a two-year process.
Beyond upgrading Finlay Park, Benjamin and Councilman Ed McDowell say the city will continue work to address the overarching issue of homelessness. Benjamin also noted that homeless people are welcome to visit — but not reside in — public parks.
"A park is a public space, and it is open to all citizens, whether they are sheltered or unsheltered," the mayor said. "But it is not a place to live."
McDowell — who insisted the redone Finlay Park will be a "park for everybody" — said the city remains intent on helping the homeless population.
"The city has been very intentional about its homeless population," McDowell said. "We have included in our [overall city] budget $1 million a year for homeless [services]."
Martin, the parks planner, said the city plans to dedicate more staff to Finlay Park when the remodel is completed. He also said increased activity and programming in the park will create a reinvigorated atmosphere there.
"The main thing we [would be] doing is activating the park, and activating it on a continuous basis," Martin said. "That will bring so many people to the park, and the community back to the park, making it a regional draw. You are not going to have the activity [levels] you have today, where there's nobody there."
The city also has purchased the 9.5-acre property just east of Finlay Park that is currently home to the Assembly Street post office. While it is likely to remain a post office for some time — the U.S. Postal Service has a lease on it for another 17 years — Benjamin said owning the property puts the city in a good position as it looks to remake Finlay.
"It really gives us a lot more options," Benjamin said. "It gives us a lot more latitude, a lot more space. We are not as landlocked. There's more that can be done there. ... But it's public knowledge that there is a long-term lease on the property, and we want to make sure we have a post office presence downtown long after we are all gone."
The mayor stressed that the iconic, spiraling Finlay Park fountain will be repaired and turned back on as part of the new plan. He said the city has had the money to fix it for a while, but wanted to hold off on that repair until a larger plan was put into place.