Cathy Novinger Girl Scout Leadership Center in Columbia

The Cathy Novinger Girl Scout Leadership Center is under construction in the Vista in downtown Columbia. The Girl Scouts of South Carolina Mountains to Midlands took on the $3 million project to help foster leadership and skills development for Girl Scouts in 22 counties. T. Michael Boddie/Staff

COLUMBIA — A 32,000-square-foot center designed to build the leadership and work skills of girls across South Carolina is set to open later this year near the Statehouse.  

Construction for the Cathy Novinger Girl Scout Leadership Center has been under way in the Vista area since October.

The first of its kind in the state, the center will be a hub for scouts and volunteers for the Girl Scouts of South Carolina Mountains to Midlands, one of the state's two regional chapters that spans 22 counties, from Oconee in the state's northwestern corner east to Lancaster and south to Aiken. 

"A lot of people think that Girl Scouts is all about cookies and friendship bracelets, but it teaches girls skills," said Karen Kelly, a vice president of the chapter. "It's crucial right now that our girls have these things." 

The center will include spaces for overnight bunkers, a girls-only lounge, a rappelling and climbing wall, and a healthy-living kitchen. Girl Scouts will also have access to a science and technology lab, art studio, retail store and greenhouse garden.

The $3 million project is at downtown's edge near the Congaree River. 

"It's almost like an incubator. They're going to be able to concentrate on five areas of leadership development," she said, referring to arts, business enterprise, healthy living, outdoor education and science and technology.

Named in memory of South Carolina business leader Cathy Novinger, who ran her own consulting business and helped lead the Palmetto AgriBusiness Council, the center is less than a mile from the state Capitol. It's also steps away from the State Museum and EdVenture Children's Museum.

The girls will experience "nature at its finest, merged with a thriving, growing metropolis," said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. 

The center will directly serve about 10,000 Girl Scouts and 3,000 volunteers, Kelly said. The close proximity to museums, the Statehouse, the Congaree River and the state's largest college, as well as Congaree National Park 30 minutes south, is intended to increase Girl Scouts' educational opportunities.

"It is going to be a game changer for girls," Kelly said. "Troops and their leaders will want to come and spend time in Columbia."

An exact completion date is not yet known, but the facility should open its doors by the end of 2019, Kelly said.

Cathy Novinger Girl Scout Leadership Center artist's rendering

An artist's rendering shows the Cathy Novinger Girl Scout Leadership Center at the corner of Williams and Senate streets in Columbia. The two-story, 32,000-square-foot facility is expected to open by the end of 2019. Provided

Lee Ann Maley, the Girl Scouts' project manager, said girls from any county in South Carolina can use the center, but usage fees haven't been determined yet. 

"It's part of the Mountains to Midlands council, but it's available for any Girl Scouts in the state," Maley said.

The idea for the center began a decade ago as part of the council's leadership development campaign, and the council bought the building from the state Department of Agriculture for $2.5 million in 2011. 

None of the project's cost came from cookie sales or any other fundraising by the Girl Scouts themselves.

Donors from the Midlands Business Leadership Group, a group of several dozen regional CEOs, helped fund the design and renovation. A longtime Girl Scouts supporter, Novinger was a member of the group. 

The city also donated tens of thousands of dollars for the facility, Benjamin said. 

"It can't open soon enough," said Benjamin, whose wife and daughters are Girl Scouts and whose mother-in-law has been a scout leader for 40 years. "I've seen firsthand the impact Girl Scouts have in creating leaders."

Maley declined to specify who donated to the project or how much. 

In 1999, Novinger became the only female executive for S.C. Electric & Gas Co. and its parent company SCANA Corp. She later had a hand in creating Transitions, a downtown Columbia facility for the homeless.

She died in 2016 after a battle with ovarian cancer.

"(Novinger) embodied strong leadership in the corporate world and her civic duties. They're those same principles we work to instill in our girls," Kelly said. "We don't say that we empower girls. We prepare girls to empower themselves."

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