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Community transformation starts with the mall

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Richland Renaissance will make a mall the place to be for Richland County, S.C. services, while avoiding blight that comes with dying shopping centers 

When Richland County, S.C. officials went shopping for a new place to provide core government services, they settled on what many saw as the unlikeliest location — a local mall.

Having lost two of its anchor stores in recent years, Columbia Place Mall was on the decline, like many malls across the country. But thinking outside the retail box, Richland County will transform the mall to a site that offers a comprehensive range of local government services. But this is just one component of a grander vision for Richland County.

The mall makeover serves as the foundation for a new initiative to enhance services, attract more business investment, draw tourists and improve residents’ quality of life — all without raising taxes.

The transformative project is Richland Renaissance.

Richland Renaissance is the county’s first comprehensive endeavor to address, in one plan, several issues facing the county. The initiative includes multiple major capital improvement and building projects, an extensive revitalization strategy to clean up blighted areas and an effort to highlight the county’s many historic sites and create a tourist destination. 

The Richland County Council gave County Administrator Gerald Seals the green light in December 2017 to move forward with the project.

The initiative will:

  • Consolidate county core operations through the acquisition and development of space at Columbia Place Mall, a local mall in an area with many small businesses.
  • Redevelop the site of the current county administration building to house a new judicial center, as existing location of the judicial center is not suitable for expansion.
  • Construct a multi-purpose facility in the far southeastern part of the county on county-owned property. In addition to serving as a county outpost, the site will offer space for critical health care access, as well as a sports venue and tourist attraction.
  • Develop a multi-purpose hub in the county’s northwest area, which also has a once-thriving mall that lost its major anchor stores.
  • Create a comprehensive historic trail to highlight key landmarks and spur tourism.
  • Implement a major revitalization strategy to boost economic development, eliminate blighted areas and enhance the overall livability and image of the county.

“Richland County is addressing the national trend of malls closing and the negative aspects for small retail merchants and surrounding businesses that often accompany such closings,” said Richland County Council Chair Joyce Dickerson. “Moving highly visible government offices to sites across the county will positively impact both the neighboring businesses and residents with improved safety, increased business activity and convenience for county services.”

The idea for Richland Renaissance is rooted in residents’ concerns expressed by county councilmembers at a planning session in 2016 and feedback from various constituent groups about the need to address space issues at the aging judicial center on Main Street in downtown Columbia. But moving Richland Renaissance from an idea to reality — without raising property taxes — required sound financial footing.

The estimated price tag to the county for Richland Renaissance capital projects totals about $144 million, funded through the use of financial reserves, short-term debt, funds already approved in the current two-year budget and the sale of county-owned property, if needed. The initiative also calls for private investments to fully realize the plan for the community.

Seals, a native of Richland County, S.C., who was hired in 2016, has tackled major projects across the country throughout his career in the public sector. In his book, Taming City Hall: Rightsizing for Results, he offers a window into his methods for improving government services and residents’ quality of life without raising taxes.

In addition to serving as a city and county manager, Seals also has advised local governments with fiscal emergencies, most notably, Orange County, Calif. when it faced bankruptcy. To get an idea of what a local government with a sound financial structure can do to improve its delivery of services and the overall livability of a community, many in South Carolina look to what Seals did in Greenville County. While serving as the administrator, he led the development of several major projects:

Greenville County’s major entertainment arena, Bon Secours Wellness Arena (formerly known as the BI-LO Center)

Road improvement program that put the county at an economic competitive advantage by having a superior transportation infrastructure

Greenville County Courthouse, which was completed on time and under budget

Main library of the Greenville County Library System

Acquisition of a soon-to-be abandoned rail line that now serves as the backbone of the internationally recognized tourist attraction Swamp Rabbit Trail.

Without the financial restructuring Seals put in place in Richland County, pursuing the types of projects in Richland Renaissance would have required an increase in property tax rates — or not been attempted at all.

“To have that kind of experience here is wonderful and, quite frankly, is why Richland Renaissance is possible,” Dickerson said.

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