Carrie Gartner, the director of Columbia’s downtown Special Business District, said the recent vote in support of removing the canopy that covers downtown businesses between Seventh and Hitt streets reflects a change in the way business owners think about their properties.
“We’re saying we should go with our strengths,” Gartner said.
The Special Business District’s board reflected that sentiment Tuesday when it voted unanimously to support the removal of all remaining sections of the canopy.
The canopy was built in 1968 in response to the proliferation of closed malls like Parkade Center, Gartner said. The canopy was constructed by local artist Pon Chinn and cost $175,000.
Gartner said there has recently been resurgence in centrally located shopping as opposed to malls, and many malls have added aspects that make them feel less enclosed.
Many downtown business owners also feel it’s time for a change. Jennifer Perlow, co-owner of Poppy, said the canopies have served their purpose, but she would like to see something more aesthetically pleasing.
“They provide a unifying effect and a downtown feel, but they are dated and quite unattractive,” Perlow said. “They keep your head dry, but they don’t beautify the buildings.”
Luanne Andes, owner of Lulu’s Repose, said the concrete canopies are not only unsightly but make it hard to identify businesses from the street.
“Customers can’t see the signs and there is no way for individual businesses to stand out,” she said.
Some businesses, such as Binghams, already have replaced the concrete canopy with more contemporary awnings and have been pleased with the results.
Co-owner and store manager David Danuser said he has received a lot of positive feedback from customers concerning the new awnings.
“They say it’s more old fashion and reminiscent of an old downtown,” Danuser said.
Gartner said recent removal projects led to Tuesday’s vote.
“We’re realizing that historic preservation is an economic development issue,” Gartner said.
The vote included support from board member Dale Puckett, who had opposed removing the canopy in the past.
Puckett is an officer for the nonprofit group that maintains the canopy, Metropolitan Improvement Co. of Columbia Inc.
Tuesday’s vote does not mean business owners will be forced to remove sections of the canopy, Gartner said.
It will cost $6,000 to remove each 20-foot section of the canopy. Gartner said that based on recent removal projects, additional costs to restore buildings will range between $4,000 and $25,000.
Gartner said she realizes the canopy evokes mixed feelings, and removal of the canopy is likely to happen over time.
“It’s not us mandating it,” Gartner said. “I’m not getting out there tomorrow with a hard hat.”
Board member Arnie Fagan said members of the community have discussed removing the canopy for decades.
“They like the practical aspects of it, but they think it’s ugly,” Fagan said.
He added that costs did not deter past efforts to remove the canopy but may emerge as an issue in the near future.
“The problem has not been about money,” Fagan said. “It may quickly become the next problem.”
One issue is the decision business owners deal with when applying to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They’re required to remove the canopy first.
Despite this, Gartner expressed excitement about the project and said federal authorities are willing to work with businesses to make sure it’s not an issue. She said the Special Business District will also post information about development incentives for business owners on its Web site, discoverthedistrict.com
“It’s our Main Street, it should be exciting and beautiful,” Gartner said.