Village at Sandhill looks to be finding its footing after years of unmet potential

Monica King and her husband cut the ribbon on their new franchise restaurant in the Village at Sandhill last month.

But up until recently, it wouldn’t have been the destination for them.

“If you looked at it in the past, a lot of people probably would have said the Village at Sandhill was not the place for us to put our restaurant,” said King, co-owner of the new Sub Station II. “But we really believe in the growth out here.”

The Village at Sandhill, a colossal 300-acre lifestyle center in northeast Columbia, hasn’t always lived up to its expectations. The colorful outdoor shopping center was “very trendy and popular” when it opened in 2004, said Bobby Balboni, a leasing agent for NAI Columbia who oversees some of the properties today. Then, the center took a beating during the recession, and developer Alan Kahn was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2013.

The banks took over, and upkeep declined. Developers, leasing agents and business owners have been fighting to gain back traction, control crime and increase its popularity since.

Something may have finally clicked.

The Village at Sandhill outdoor mall on Friday, January 20, 2023.
The Village at Sandhill outdoor mall on Friday, January 20, 2023.

Developer David Witzling had just purchased several parcels with vacant storefronts when the world stopped in March 2020. As national retailers had to close their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, leasing staff at the Village at Sandhill turned to locally, independently-owned businesses to fill their empty storefronts.

“It was a challenge,” Witzling said. But today, his parcels are fully occupied.

At least four out of every five storefronts at the Village at Sandhill’s Town Center are filled. Around three dozen businesses are at the center. And occupancy at the center has grown the past two years, Balboni said.

As the pandemic and growing popularity of online shopping pushed consumers away from brick-and-mortar stores — and Columbia’s own, long-faded Richland Mall was just sold — what turned the tide for the Village at Sandhill?

You can’t buy it online

E-commerce and Amazon were already starting to eat away at profits for brick-and-mortar businesses when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so it expedited shopping and development trends that were already in place, Balboni said.

This meant that shopping centers across the U.S. had to get creative or face the fear of bankruptcy. Like others, the Village at Sandhill reconceptualized to focus on the customer experience and added local and minority-owned businesses, Balboni said.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve learned that people … really like going out and the experience of shopping and interacting with actual people,” Balboni said.

Retail success now is about focusing on the customer experience and providing services that people can’t buy online, said Ric Anderson, a longtime retailer and the managing director of the national Retail Thinktank.

Service industry businesses, beauty, fitness, salons and pet care have been among those to open recently at the Village at Sandhill.

The Village at Sandhill outdoor mall on Friday, January 20, 2023.
The Village at Sandhill outdoor mall on Friday, January 20, 2023.

And the Village at Sandhill has grown with new independent businesses in the past year, King said. She thinks more people want to buy local and to buy from minority-owned businesses. Now many local and minority-owned businesses call the Village at Sandhill home, such as Status Boutique, the Knotty Spot Salon, Natural Wigs and Luxe Beauty Supply.

Recent locally-owned business growth at the Village at Sandhill mirrors national trends. Small companies have been responsible for nearly all of the U.S.’s net job growth, according to a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal.

“We felt very confident that (Sub Station II) would be successful and bring something to the northeast side of town that wasn’t currently there,” King said.

In the first month of business, the Sub Station II saw 30% more business than the owners initially predicted. This location is also in the top 4% of all franchise owners, King said.

“We’re starting to see a pickup in activity,” said Jesica Mackey, a Richland County Council member representing the northeast area of the county.

It’s all about variety

The Village at Sandhill’s combination of stores like Academy Sports + Outdoors, Esther’s Soul Food + Kitchen, Luxe Beauty Supply and the Regal movie theater may be contributing to its survival.

Mixed-use centers nationwide are doing better than traditional malls, according to Anderson. As many anchor stores become stagnant or file for bankruptcy, adding restaurants and other events and elements in makes shopping centers stronger, he said.

Those contrasts are notable in Columbia.

The indoor concrete fortress of the former Richland Mall was just sold this month. The company that bought it plans to demolish the mostly vacant and deteriorated mall and rebuild it as an outdoor mixed-use shopping center.

“We’ve found it to be successful when you can put those mixes of use together,” said Jason Long, vice president of Southeastern Company that bought the Richland Mall. “They blend well together, support each other and make for nicer experiences.”

This sits in line with trends around the country.

The Village at Sandhill outdoor mall on Friday, January 20, 2023.
The Village at Sandhill outdoor mall on Friday, January 20, 2023.

“I think what we’re seeing on a broad level is that many of the shopping areas are thinking more about how to better creatively use the space,” said Jeff Campbell, associate professor of retailing at the University of South Carolina. “Malls are being reconceptualized more into mixed-use spaces.”

When the $100 million renovation is complete, the former Richland Mall will likely look like a mini-Village at Sandhill, Long said. As well as adding a brewery or taproom and finalizing a public-private partnership to bring a park, having less retail space could be a benefit to the coming Forest Acres center.

“We won’t have the level of retail square footage that (the Village at Sandill has),” Long said. “We’re comfortable with the amount of retail we’ll have.”

Balboni and other agents are working to fill the remaining 16% of space that’s currently vacant at the Village at Sandhill. Two new leases in Town Center 1 are slated to be finalized in the first quarter of 2023.

“I think (the Village at Sandhill) … is on the right path, but it may take a while to succeed,” Campbell said.

A piece of northeast Columbia

The Village at Sandhill, located off of Interstate 20 and across from the Clemson agricultural research property’s open fields, is an integral part of Columbia’s northeast community, according to Mackey.

As the shopping complex is working on improving, so are the surrounding neighborhoods. The Richland County Council adopted a master plan in 2021 to beautify the area and accommodate for the ever-increasing population.

The plan includes adding sidewalks, traffic signals, street signs, trees and plants and widening the roads, Mackey said. And connecting the Village at Sandhill to the nearby Clemson research property and neighborhoods is key, Mackey said.

The Village at Sandhill outdoor mall on Friday, January 20, 2023.
The Village at Sandhill outdoor mall on Friday, January 20, 2023.

“Folks want to be part of their community,” Mackey said. “You live, work and play. … The Village at Sandhill is outside of the plan, but it does provide a quality of life feature to residents of Northeast Columbia.”

A Richland Library branch and the Richland Two Institute of Innovation also tie in with the Village at Sandhill to complete the mixture of public and private businesses open to nearby residents and shoppers, Mackey said.

The diversity in business types coupled with its central location are what attracted Witzling to buy properties at the Village at Sandhill, he said.

“Downtown Columbia is a half-hour drive away. This is (the northeast’s) downtown, and it’s a beautiful place to have as their central business district,” Witzling said.