Thirty years ago, in the era of sock hops and burly Cadillacs, Business Loop 70 was a high-schooler’s slice of heaven: a 4-mile stretch with empty parking lots and few stoplights just perfect for an idyllic Friday night cruise.
“It was just the place kids went back then,” said Dave Griggs, who grew up in Columbia and owns a flooring company on the business loop.
Utility poles leaned haphazardly to one side and power lines framed the road, stretching on for miles. But back then, many said, nobody cared. Like Silver Griddle pancakes and late-night parking-lot parties, the ugliness was just part of the charm.
Not anymore, according to city officials and local business owners. As restaurants and motels gave way to pawn shops and strip malls, the ugliness stopped being cute. As landscapers have made up Columbia bit by bit, Business Loop 70 is looking more like a comparative eyesore.
“People have learned to appreciate their environment more in the last decade,” Assistant City Manager Bill Watkins said. “Good landscaping is starting to reflect the quality of life.”
City officials and business owners want to make the loop more attractive — hopefully like the verdant plazas on Forum Boulevard or near Columbia Mall, Griggs said. Right now, he said, the loop has too few sidewalks, too many overhead power lines and not nearly enough trees.
Since 2001, the city has sat on plans for a $260,000 makeover of the aging spans near Interstate 70 and between Garth Avenue and Creasy Springs Road.
Watkins said the city is waiting on business owners, who are behind schedule on forming a “community improvement district” that began taking shape in January. Griggs and Justin Perry from Perry Chevrolet spearheaded the district, which requires a majority of property owners along the loop to sign a petition supporting it.
“It’s important to make this area attractive for development,” Griggs said. “Ninty-nine percent of the people I talked to have supported this. We just haven’t talked to enough people yet.”
Griggs said he hopes to have enough business owners sign the petition by early spring so the City Council can approve it by the middle of 2004. If the petition is ratified, property owners along the loop would have more legal clout, and money pooled by businesses could be set aside to match state and federal grants for business loop upgrades.
The loop, whose image has sat in limbo for decades, is primed for a paradigm shift, city officials said. As U.S. 40, it used to be Columbia’s main thoroughfare. When I-70 was built in the mid-1950s, the loop became a magnet for travelers and teenagers. It had a culture once, Griggs said, but over the years the loop has lost its identity.
Pawn shops and payday loan companies have set up shop near strip malls pocked with burned-out fluorescent signs. The east half looks gray and sterile, with plenty of potholes but not many trees.
City officials and business owners agree: Something must change to bring the loop up to speed with the rest of Columbia.
“(The Business Loop) doesn’t look much different than it used to,” City Planning Director Roy Dudark said. “Some areas of the city have been able to respond and some haven’t.”
The loop’s new role could range from a commercial hub like the area near Columbia Mall to a hotel and motel oasis on I-70. Watkins and Griggs said they are confident the loop will be important to developers eyeing prime real estate along soon-to-be-renovated I-70.
“I think it’s got a lot of potential,” Watkins said. “It’s going to play an important role as the I-70 project gets rolling.”