West Columbia Eyes Citywide Revitalization

A rusting chain-link fence borders Rosemounda Percell-Butler Park — a rectangular three-block stretch of land tucked away near the center of West Columbia. Vines and unkempt hedges grow through parts of the fence. Inside the park, some weathered playgrounds stand. The park has some age on it but it’s not dilapidated.

Then you see the blue porta-john for park users sitting along the edge of the fence, and things come a bit more into perspective.

“It’s certainly not up to par in comparison to the others throughout West Columbia,” says Kenneth Taylor, pastor of the Turner Memorial AME Church in the town’s District 5, where the park is.

The City of West Columbia is now working with a Florida-based company to create a community revitalization plan for District 5 as well as a redevelopment plan that spans the city.

“Our community revitalization plan and citywide redevelopment plan will include an existing conditions analysis, market research, demographics, identification of opportunities, and an implementation plan,” says project manager Lynn Dehlinger with RMA, the company that’s working with West Columbia. “This will identify goals, strategies and initiatives [and] tactics. The plans will include strategies for economic development, public improvements, residential development and quality of life, transportation and parking, and redevelopment support.”

At a recent public input session for the new plan, residents of District 5 stressed that they wanted better public facilities for young people — an issue that the community has brought up to West Columbia’s City Council for years.

“I certainly think they’re listening because we wouldn’t be at the stage we’re at if they weren’t listening,” Taylor says. “This is a formal plan. We’ve never been to this step before.”

West Columbia Mayor Bobby Horton sees the unique problems of District 5 with its lower income concentration.

“The purpose of [the community revitalization plan] is to get [individuals’] input in a non-structured environment like you’d get before Council — what they think about it in their own territory,” Horton says. “But the Council position is not to concentrate on just one area but throughout the city that might have similar problems. … We’re using citywide dollars so it should be a citywide effort.”

To Taylor, a plan for his district is a step in the right direction, but more can be done.

“It takes the togetherness of the residents and there’s so much residents can do on their own to improve their various districts,” he says. “We didn’t get to where we are overnight and we won’t get out overnight.”

Residents of another district in West Columbia are trying to define their community on their own despite the city’s designs. In District 4, Brookland Dwellers, a vocal group of Mill Hill residents and stakeholders, have fought to keep the city from demolishing four homes that are more than a century old. West Columbia’s council wants the houses torn down in order to create a parking lot. Earlier in the month, a house in the turn-of-the-century neighborhood was razed by the city. Destroying homes also destroys the valuable and distinct character of the Mill Hill, the group wanting to keep the houses says.

David Moye, who grew up in the community and owns property there along with other members of his family, was at the recent public input session and spoke with RMA’s team.

“[RMA] seems to understand the value of revitalizing historic resources as the best way to grow the local economy,” Moye says. “The Riverwalk entrance [near the houses], if they emphasize the uniqueness of the area that will promote tourism. If you repurpose the area, opportunities for locally owned business are created.”

With one centenarian house already torn down after getting more than 500 signatures on a petition that asked the city to not demolish it and get a professional outside perspective on the houses, Moye says “If [West Columbia] tear[s] the houses down before getting the opinion of the city planners, it just goes to show the amount that they’re going to take professional advice to grow.”

Horton maintains that parking is a worthy use of the land where the houses now sit.

“It’s an old historic area,” the mayor says, “But just because something’s old doesn’t mean its historical.”

The New Brookland Historic District where the Mill Hill exists is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1978 application for the Register, the houses were presented as evidence as to why the area should be permitted on the list.

RMA previously helped redevelop historic areas in Florida towns such as Pompano Beach, Alachua, and Northwood Village near Palm Beach.

“RMA places significant emphasis on maintaining the character and historic attributes of every city,” Dehlinger from RMA says about their redevelopment planning.

How that will play out with City Council wanting to demolish some of the oldest structures in West Columbia is yet to be seen. But for now Horton is ready to hear from RMA and residents about how the town could develop.

“That’s why we have professionals come in and do this that are unbiased and are totally opened to what residents have to say,” the mayor says.

News Source @ Free Times