COLUMBIA — The view atop Finlay Park is supposed to be the stuff of postcards — a hill near the Governor’s Mansion overlooking 17 acres of greenspace, water cascading from a spiral fountain into a man-made pond and Columbia’s skyline peaking above canopy trees that offer shade along winding foot paths.
But the public park that the city once promoted as an “oasis in the heart of downtown” more recently to some has become a neglected eyesore.
The fountain hasn’t pumped water in years. The trees on the hillside are overgrown, blocking views and causing a daily headache for maintenance crews. On a typical day, the park is mostly populated by crowds of the homeless.
After years of talk about improving the historic park, which predates the Civil War, Columbia officials are now considering spending as much as $30 million. The city could also sell a piece of the park or hand over part of its control to an outside company.
City leaders are requesting submissions from private firms for project ideas through October, signaling the likelihood of at least some form of private development at the park for the first time in its history.
Those submissions are sealed, but a person with knowledge of some of the proposals described them to The Post and Courier.
The concepts include the city selling the south or southwest edge of the park for a housing and commercial development, or a boutique hotel. Another involves building a large park amenity, described as a “regional attraction” that would draw visitors from across South Carolina, though no one is revealing what that could be.
One partnership involves the city fronting the costs for amenities, roughly $30 million, with the developer paying the money back over a number of years. It would also include turning the park's management over to a private company, while the city would own the land.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said he’s encouraged by the possibility of a public-private partnership, adding the city deserves a “first-class public park” four blocks north of the S.C. Statehouse.
But giving away any control of the capital city’s once-prized park concerns some city leaders, including Rep. Kirkman Finlay III. The park was named after his late father, a former Columbia mayor, who pushed to rebuild the park in the 1970s and 1980s after it sat for decades as a train depot.
“It’s very interesting that we’re taking public parks and making them income strings for private developers,” said the younger Finlay, a Columbia Republican and former city councilman. “Is this the beginning of the commercialization and liquidation of Finlay Park?”
Few would dispute Finlay Park needs a major overhaul backed by the Columbia City Council.
But what’s not widely known is another council decision, more than a century ago, to sell what was then called Sidney Park to Seaboard Air Line Railway.
The move, to make way for a freight yard, deprived the city of its largest greenspace for decades.
Sidney Park in the 1890s sat in the same location where Finlay Park is today. With a forest of elms and evergreens, an ice cream stand, petting zoo and natural springs that served as the city’s main water source, the park had been hailed as “one of the most beautiful parks in the world,” like a Central Park of the South, according to news reports at the time.
It even served as a "refuge" for Columbia residents in 1865 when troops belonging to Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman destroyed much of the city, news reports said.
But the Seaboard was eyeing the property for a connection from Columbia through Charleston to Savannah. City Council sold the property to the railway on July 10, 1899, for $30,000, or about $900,000 today.
The local newspaper criticized the council's decision. “If ever there was a thoughtless, short-sighted step taken by the townsmen of a ‘great and growing city,’ it was when Sidney Park was given to the Seaboard,” The State newspaper wrote in a July 1899 editorial. “Spilled milk is a poor thing to cry over, but a grave wrong has been perpetuated upon our population which most need a park.”
'A major issue'
Seaboard for decades used the space for warehousing and industrial plants that manufactured ice, fuel and septic tanks. After that venture folded, Mayor Kirkman Finlay Jr. led a push to bring back Sidney Park, championing a master plan for the park in the 1980s.
The park’s rebuild approved by the council in 1986 cost $8.7 million, or roughly $19.7 million today. A crowd gathered on a rainy December night in 1990 for a holiday tree lighting and park reopening.
But the park site, once a flat bog surrounded by clay mounds, caused issues immediately. Engineers grappled with preventing the hillside from caving in. The park is effectively a natural bowl, set down more than 50 feet from Sumter Street to the north. Many drive by the park on Assembly Street without knowing it’s there.
“It was and remains a place where normal human interaction would not have taken place,” Benjamin said. “That’s a major issue.”
Eventually, the man-made pond began to leak. The fountain stopped working in 2014. Crews tore out the old playground in 2016. As the park was used less and less, it became a popular gathering place for the city's homeless.
A 2017 homicide at the park, though it was a domestic dispute, made headlines. Many people simply avoid the place.
The city hired a consultant to study the park, and the report for a full renovation came with a price tag of $20 million.
The council balked at the cost. Without first addressing issues of security and vandalism, city leaders wouldn’t commit to paying for renovations.
“It was supposed to be the centerpiece of the downtown redevelopment of Columbia,” Finlay said. “And what it became was a place where they had to install stainless steel urinals so they couldn’t be ripped off the wall.”
Still, officials are open to a public-private partnership at the park that turns over its maintenance, including security, to a private firm.
“We kind of like that idea,” Councilman Howard Duvall said. “It would put staff on the park 24/7.”
The city could also create a special tax district in the area that would funnel money to pay for a Finlay Park overhaul, even if it cost tens of millions of dollars, officials said.
It’s the same kind of financing plan that paid for the park rebuild in the 1980s and also spurred the redevelopment of The Vista entertainment district, a former rail area that stretches from Sumter Street to the Congaree River just west of the Statehouse.
An updated Finlay Park could spur similar development of the park’s surrounding area, creating a new destination near Columbia’s recently revitalized Main Street, officials said.
“It has a unique opportunity to capture the growth of the Vista and the development of Main Street,” Benjamin said.
Either way, restoring the park to the vision of its namesake, the former Columbia mayor, will require an effort from the council that the park has long deserved but was never given, Finlay said.
“It was always problematic,” he said. “It never became the focal point that he had hoped.”