SBD Board must remain vigilant to keep downtown business scene vibrant
When I opened my retail gift store, Cool Stuff, 18 years ago, downtown Columbia looked sickly. There were few interesting businesses and many vacant storefronts.
The opening of the mall had sucked a lot of businesses out there, and many of the old-time retailers were closing, moving or barely hanging on.
By the mid-1990s, the cool, creative local businesses had breathed life back into the old downtown. An exciting mix of new gift shops, boutiques, coffee houses, restaurants and bars sprouted from the empty spaces, transforming the district into the vibrant, charming mini-metropolis it is today.
I’ve spent the last 18 years helping lead the downtown resurgence with a fun, creative, inclusive vision of community building.
I’ve led by action: three years on the Central Columbia Association board and then 12 years on the Special Business District board. I’ve led by example: My gift store has been one of the most popular downtown attractions, open 70 hours a week, 360 days a year.
Today, The District is thriving and growing with a shining future ahead, and being civic-minded and invested, I wouldn’t sit idly by if anyone tried to ruin it for the rest of us.
One way to ruin things down here would be to allow the trash compactors and alleys to become a dirty, stinking mess, with food and trash slopping out, forming a toxic swill on the pavement.
Another way to ruin it would be to allow our main streets to be taken over by packs of vagabonds, vagrants and ne’er-do-wells, who get intoxicated in public, aggressively panhandle, intimidate pedestrians, vandalize property, litter, create public toilets and generally cause trouble.
From my years of experience in entrepreneurship, I think one way to hurt business in The District would be to find an anti-sign extremist who neither owns, rents, lives in nor works in a building downtown and appoint that person chair of a sign committee. It would be like playing Monopoly using other peoples’ houses and hotels.
The resulting radical vasectomy of business owners’ rights created by The District Sign Ordinance would make future signs the smallest in the entire city. Size really does matter.
Downtown Columbia might also suffer if the person in the position of executive director of the SBD, who works for us, were ever to destroy our trust by being aloof, unhelpful, unfriendly and combative — or by squelching, spinning or disregarding input from the public and from the building and business owners.
In that case, and speaking as a person who was on the last hiring committee, I would recommend the SBD board oversee an in-depth, professionally administered survey by an outside firm to explore the thoughts and feelings of the building and business owners toward the entity and the office personnel. Who knows? We might just learn something that would help. If problems were identified, the board could quickly address them, and we could all move forward in a positive way together.
Now I’m sure downtown Columbia will never suffer any of these ills due to the forward-looking leadership currently on the SBD board. They’re good people. I know them all, and I have faith in their skills in continuing to improve The District.
As for me, it looks like I’ll continue to make downtown Columbia my home. After all, I live in, work in, play in and own a nice slice of it. Cool Stuff is back open seven days a week, and I’ve opened a commercial real estate company, Arnie Realty Group, or ARG!.
Though I have moved on from the board, I still try to follow the issues because I have a lot invested in this place. So if I see anything that I believe could be bad for the future of downtown, I’ll be sure to let everyone know.