Columbia’s got a bustling antiques scene, its own brewpub and historic markethouse. It’s got a 100-year-old pharmacy, an events venue and — unique among all the boroughs in Lancaster County — a waterfront.
But it’s got problems, too.
The downtown business district is struggling. Vacant storefronts and run-down buildings plague some streets. Columbia’s population is largely poor, its schools strapped for cash because of an unstable tax base.
Experts have now come up with a menu of solutions.
— An anchor hotel.
— A “pocket park.”
— Bike racks.
— Dramatic changes to pedestrian and vehicle traffic to direct tourists to shops and hikers to the Susquehanna River and its network of scenic trails.
— The designation of the heart of town — 3rd and Locust streets — as “Columbia Square” or “Columbia Center.”
The proposals, issued by the Urban Land Institute, are being embraced by residents, business owners and elected officials in this town of 10,000.
“There’s a lot of history in this steel town,” Columbia resident Bill Morehart said.
So what would Columbia look like if the Urban Land Institute's proposals take shape?
Local business owners said the central business district would benefit from additional restaurants and bars, as well as grocery stores, clothing and shoe stores, laundromats and fitness facilities.
The stores “would benefit from having a hotel nearby,” the report stated.
Columbia’s “thriving” antiques market also provides between 20,000 and 30,000 additional visitors to the borough each year.
The more than 100,000 annual visitors to the Columbia River Trail gives great potential for added business downtown, the report found. The panel of experts proposed making Walnut and Locust Streets into one-way streets along with removing parking on one side of the street to make way for a bike lane.
The tan, green and purple-accented banners placed outside many Columbia businesses would be replaced with new signage all over the borough at the panel’s recommendation.
In addition, a wayfinding system would direct riverfront visitors back downtown back via Locust Street — to the main business district — instead of its current feeder road at Walnut Street.
The report called for the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority to “acquire, consolidate and market” several vacant properties in the borough’s central business district.
The study focused on properties at 305-315 Locust Street, including the former Hotel Columbia and Hotel Locust. Several other nearby properties, including 25 N. 3rd St. and several buildings in the 300 block of Walnut Street, were also studied by the panelists. All of the buildings are vacant or “underutilized.”
Borough Council President Kelly Murphy said having a hotel at the site of the former Hotels Locust/Columbia is essential to the borough’s turnaround plans.
“We don’t want to lose the hotel(s), but they’re deteriorating by the day,” he said.
Panelists considered a 192-space parking garage, but said the estimated construction cost of $6 million was “not economically viable” at the moment but “should be reassessed every few years.”
Instead, panelists proposed paving a new 70-space pay parking at 25 N. 3rd Street.
The report also suggested creating a dedicated, revolving parking fund to secure maintenance and expansion improvements outside of other budgetary matters.
“We know (parking) is an issue and it’s going to be a bigger issue,” Mayor Leo Lutz said. “It would be difficult for the redevelopment authority to offer (the properties) to a developer without being able to answer the parking question.”
Solutions to Columbia’s problems
Several borough residents and visitors liked the proposals in the report, but had several ideas of their own.
“They need to bring back the market — like an actual market,” Mildred “Cookie” Morehart said Wednesday.
Before the Columbia Market House closed in Dec. 2017, it was “pretty much a flea market,” her husband Bill Morehart added. Both would like to see a focus on produce.
Plans are underway to reopen the market next summer.
York resident David Parr previously lived in Columbia and said the borough should direct its efforts “like Gettysburg did” on local history, including the underground railroad crossings along the Susquehanna River.
The report was well-received by borough officials who called it a validation of their existing efforts.
“It’s kind of like, OK, this is the plan we had. Were we correct? Well, another group of professionals think so,” Lutz said. “So we should continue that plan.”
Parts of the report, such as a parking study, are already being implemented.
Columbia recently received a state grant of $1.75 million toward renovations for the Columbia Market House and other parking improvements.
A separate request for proposals for a parking study is set to go out later this week, according to Borough Manager Rebecca Denlinger.
The report was funded by the borough council at a cost of $10,000. Murphy, the council president, said the report was a morale boost for borough stakeholders.
“It was nice to hear that you’re headed in the right direction,” he said.