Through a mix of barren trees outside Dana Battison’s central city office, she can see an empty plot at the corner of Garth Avenue and Sexton Road in the First Ward. This spring when the leaves return, a grocery store, retail shops and apartments should begin to sprout from the vacant lot.
If construction goes as planned, Battison said, the view from her office in about a year will show a rejuvenated part of Columbia that’s now notorious for crime and drug problems. She envisions a community coming together, with residents sitting on their porches and people walking to the grocery store and shops and talking to children.
“I hope to really see people come out and take pride in their community,” said Battison, the executive director of Covenant Community Development Corp., the project’s developer. “I want to have it be the sense that this is our community, and we’re not just the place where the drug deals go down in Columbia.”
The development, with an ALPS grocery store, 4,800 square feet of retail space and seven apartments, will be funded by a $1.2 million bank loan and $2.4 million in donations, grants and tax credits. When completed, it will take up only one corner of the central city. Yet those involved think it could be the start of real change in the neighborhood.
It begins with the apartment program. Families with at least one working parent can apply to live in one of the new units for up to two years. During their stay, the Covenant CDC will help find them a house. In return, the parents must enroll in a monthly class, in management, budgeting or reading, for example, and put $200 a month into savings, Battison said. When they leave the apartment, the Covenant CDC will match or double the family’s savings.
The concept represents a new trend in holistic approaches to helping a family combat poverty, Battison said.
“The encouragement is to help the family break the cycle of generational poverty,” she said. “It’s really a lifestyle change.”
Application guidelines have not yet been finalized. But Battison said that to be eligible, families will have to earn less than the low-income level defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That level in Columbia for a family of four is currently $49,600, according to HUD.
The apartments, five of which are above the retail space and two next to the grocery store, will rent for about $800 a month, including utilities. Battison said the rent for the 1,000- to 1,200-square-feet apartments are on the low end compared to similar units in the area.
Below the five apartments on Garth Avenue will be four or five retail shops, which could potentially include a hair salon and an Afro-centric gift boutique selling faith-based gift items, books and accessories. Another commercial possibility is a storefront location for Captain Cream, a mobile ice cream vendor.
“I know the need for there to be businesses over there,” said Robert Leach, owner of Captain Cream.
Leach, who lived in the First Ward for 10 years, must wait for the formation of a committee to review new-business applications to learn whether he will open a new Captain Cream.
He said the development has the potential to promote economic change in the area. “Once someone sees someone else come and be successful, they will come,” he said.
Leach said the only reservation he has about opening a new business is a fear that people would be reluctant to shop in the area because of its reputation. However, it’s not enough to deter him; one of the tenets of the development is a commitment to hiring workers from the community. Leach said he would hire high school and college students who are “strictly from the area.”
“The importance of that is to show the community that I care,” said Leach.
Ed Bailey, a Covenant CDC board member, said this part of Columbia hasn’t seen much new development in 40 years and that the Covenant project offers a “golden opportunity” for change in the area.
“This is a well-established neighborhood that has streets that are suitable for the 1950s,” Bailey said. “Everything must improve.”
Despite the optimism of people like Leach and Bailey, the project has been the subject of contentious debate since it was first discussed several years ago. Some central city residents opposed the development, arguing that it would become a magnet for crime. Others questioned whether the narrow streets could handle the extra traffic from large trucks carrying produce and goods to the grocery store.
Still others, such as Donna Cullimore, who lives across from the grocery store site, told the City Council in September that, in the past, poor drainage has led to excessive flooding in the area after heavy rainstorms.
Then, while the council was deliberating for a final vote, First Ward councilwoman Almeta Crayton, a project supporter, voted against the development, saying she felt threatened by community activist John Clark, who opposed the plan and urged Clayton to do so as well.
Nonetheless, the council approved the project in October. But the extended debate delayed construction, which was scheduled to begin in December. The weather further delayed the groundbreaking, which is now not expected to happen until spring, Battison said.