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The flowing frontier: Columbia mayoral candidates eye river development plans

·3 min read

The rivers in and near Columbia have long been a piece of the capital city’s identity. Now the four candidates to be the city’s next mayor are looking at ways to unlock the development potential near the waters that flow through the region.

While the rivers have long been a key recreational resource for fishermen, kayakers, tubers and nature sightseers utilizing the riverwalks, it sometimes feels as if Columbia hasn’t fully tapped into the possibilities the waterways could bring to the city’s future.

The State recently asked the four candidates for Columbia mayor former District 3 City Councilman Moe Baddourah; at-large City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine; Sam Johnson, a former chief of staff for Mayor Steve Benjamin; and District 4 City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann how they want to see the riverfront utilized and developed.

The mayoral election is Nov. 2, with a runoff on Nov. 16, if necessary. Benjamin is not seeking re-election this year after three terms.

Rickenmann, who has served three terms on City Council across two different stints, said he would push for a greenway project that would connect the riverfront all the way to Lake Murray. He said government and private resources could be used, and he called the idea a “game-changer” that could be a destination item for Columbia.

“I believe through public-private partnerships we would create a nationally recognized greenway that would not only promote our city, but make our citizens healthier, more active and more connected than ever before,” Rickenmann said.

The councilman also said that, when the Vulcan quarry in Olympia is closed, he’d like to see it reimagined as a freshwater recreation area with a park, walking paths and more. The quarry is not far from the Congaree River.

Johnson, who was Benjamin’s top aide for six years, said Columbia needs to be intentional and comprehensive about its plans for riverfront development. He called the riverfront a “top priority” and “the single biggest opportunity” in the city for new investment that could push the city forward.

“If Columbia is going to truly grow and reach our potential as a city, we have to develop our riverfront in a real, committed way instead of the piecemeal approach we’ve seen with the Riverwalk,” Johnson said.

The Saluda Riverwalk has been completed in phases over a number of years, with the latest three-mile stretch paid for by the Richland County Transportation Penny Program and now under the city’s jurisdiction — opening this summer.

Devine, who has served in the citywide at-large seat for 19 years, painted a vision of the riverfront in Columbia as a place where nature and commerce could meet in a bigger way in the future.

“Developing the riverfront has got to be a priority,” she said. “I would like to see it as a vibrant place to shop, dine and have direct access to the river. I would like to see an environmentally friendly development that encourages more people to connect with nature.”

The councilwoman noted that working collaboratively with businesses and private property owners, as well as state and federal officials, would be paramount in bringing new investments near the river.

Baddourah, a restaurateur who served two terms on City Council from 2012 to 2019, said greater development along the river “has been talked about for generations” in Columbia. In a recent campaign video, he called the riverfront “nature at its finest.”

But he also notes he wants to make the waterfront more accessible for “smart commercial” growth.

“My vision is to bring more residential housing like (Riverfront apartment development) Canalside, and build the infrastructure for small businesses and art vendors to open shops where citizens can enjoy our beautiful riverfront in a natural setting,” Baddourah said.

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