COLUMBIA — Richland County has begun a long-awaited project to boost tourism around Congaree National Park.
The Conversation Commission first created the Lower Richland Tourism Plan in 2016. It was approved in 2018 but has remained inactive despite being approved by the County Council. The County Council approved the plan’s initial approval on July 12.
The plan consists of three main components: promoting the area’s history, highlighting its natural resources, and developing small businesses.
The project would establish centers that allow visitors to learn more about the area’s history and natural resources. It includes a small business incubator, a commercial kitchen, and a small food court.
Each plan step will need to be approved by the County Council. However, adopting it will ensure that tourism in Lower Richland is a priority for the county, according to John Grego (chair of the Conservation Committee), which assisted with the plan’s development.
Grego stated that the general idea is to capitalize on the many people who visit the National Park.
According to the National Parks Service, 215K people visited the park last year. It is located approximately 20 miles from Columbia. They spent an estimated $12.3million in nearby cities.
This money goes back into the local economy, not necessarily where people went to see it.
Grego stated that while they spend money in Columbia, they don’t spend it here in the lower Richland. “So, we would like to see tourists spend a little less of their money in Columbia and spend more time in the Lower Richland area. This benefit will also accrue to the residents of the Lower Richland.”
Grego stated that he would like to see some small changes to promote the area, such as better signage or rebuilding a bridge to allow access to the Mill Creek area.
Cheryl English, a County Councilwoman who lives and represents lower Richland, said that she hopes the plan will show people more of what she knows: Lower Richland has many things to offer.
English stated, “We’re not the ugly duckling anymore. We are the beautiful swan that has always been there.”
Lower Richland is a popular destination for people who want to spend time in the natural world.
Grego explained that the park is federally protected, so there are no accommodations or outdoor activities. People can’t stay in tents unless they want to. There are few options for boat-launch locations.
The county can increase the attraction of the national park by developing the 2,555-acre Mill Creek tract, which is county-owned. It will include trails, cabins, RV parks, and river access.
Grego stated that there would be opportunities to do projects on the property that are not possible in National Park. “Maybe more camping opportunities, elevated platforms for kayaking, or more access to the River.”
The Mill Creek Nature Center is the centerpiece of the plan. It would be a place for visitors to meet, learn more about the area, and make camping reservations.
Visitors would have the option to access existing trails, new signage, and new river access points from this point. Visitors could also explore other natural resources such as Goose Pond and the Wateree River. You will find fishing, biking trails, and more landing spots for kayaks or canoes.
English stated that the plan, together with everything else, would help to buffer natural beauty and natural waterways. It’s fascinating to see it come to fruition because it will mean a lot for Richland County and the state of South Carolina.
More than two dozen historical places are located in the lower Richland cities of Eastover, Gadsden, and Hopkins. Grego stated that they are not well-known and disconnected from the rest of the region.
Lower Richland Tourism Plan would create a heritage center at Hopkins Village Green and connect historic sites via a network trail system with signs that educate people about the area.
It would create an oral history of the county and lobby for Richland County to be included in the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor.
Marie Adams, the owner of The Harriet Barber House, lower Richland, said that she believes people have an appetite for history. It’s all about getting them to visit the sites.
Adams has had the Barber House in her family for generations. It was built in 1872 by Sam Barber, her great-grandparents. They then paid off the land over six years. The Barber House is currently closed for appointments and events only.
Marie Adams would open the store more often if she saw greater demand.
She said tourists are welcome to visit the house because of their interest. “Regardless of your love for history, the house is a great place to learn about African American history and other historical sites in and around the Lower Richland.”
Development of small businesses
People will need to be able to eat and rest if they are planning to live in the lower Richland area.
Wavering Place’s owner Lisa Adams said that average weddings and other events draw in between 100 to 300 people. She said that most people end up staying in Columbia because there aren’t many lodgings available.
She stated, “I believe there’s an opportunity for history bed and breakfast type (places),” and “I believe there’s an opportunity I would love for it to become a reality.”
Lower Richland Tourism Plan is designed to assist people in the region with starting their businesses. It provides resources and coaching and helps them apply for loans or other funding assistance.
Grego stated that staff could help people start small businesses through a small business incubator. They could rent out their homes to tourists or use the commercial kitchen.
Professionals would help the businesses grow until they become independent restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts.
Charisse Newton, County Councilwoman, said it doesn’t matter what the program looks like if it promotes commerce.
Newton stated, “What I am most excited about is to foster small business growth and keep the dollars in our community.”