COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - If you haven't been near Columbia's Colonial Life Arena lately, you're in for a shock.
Almost everywhere you look there are construction crews, heavy equipment, and detours as workers scramble to transform several locations into living space for thousands of new residents.
A massive project known as 650 Lincoln near the Carolina Coliseum offers nearly 900 beds alone. And within a five block radius, there are five more developments at varying stages of construction, adding another 1,700 beds.
Most, but not all, are aimed at students.
"We actually have coming online probably within the next two years around 1,300 market-rate apartment units as well to help swell the population," said Columbia Planning and Development Director Krista Hampton.
"Columbia is finally reaching out to the river and bringing a lot of people in to enjoy it," Fred Delk with the Columbia Development Corporation said. "We're getting 3,000 new residents. We'll have 5,000 people living downtown soon. Probably another 2,000 next year and maybe two or 3,000 the year after that."
It's exhilarating news for any city, but Columbia's building boom doesn't stop there.
In other parts of downtown, five more projects proposed or underway would create close to 2,500 more places to call home. They do not include the apartments and townhouses expected to fill the city's a large portion of the city's Bull Street Common property.
There's also major construction underway as the University of South Carolina adds to its Innovista campus with the long-delayed Innovation Center now rising at the corner of Blossom and Assembly streets.
"Columbia now is on the precipice of really fulfilling the potential," former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said. "All the hard work over the decades coming to a point where the private sector believes it is moving forward."
"It's good for the entire community to see this type of dense urban vertical development." Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said. "So it's not just about the students. It's also about building a tax structure that has a third leg that supports development all across the city."
In fact, a critical change in city tax policy helped spark the explosion: a 50 percent, 10-year tax cut on student housing projects if they involved at least $40 million in investment.
"This tax cut is going to yield hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes for Richland One, the county and the City of Columbia," Benjamin said.
Much of the real estate where these projects are being built has provided modest tax revenues until now. At Gervais and Harden for example, the former home of the Greyhound Bus station, Benjamin said the city collected roughly $25,000 a year in taxes from that business.
When another huge student housing development opens at the site in a year, that tax bill could skyrocket to $650,000 -- 26 times what the property had been generating.
"Having that tax credit available to them really kind of helped grease the wheels and made it more appealing for developers to come in and make the numbers work to make those developments achievable in the downtown area," said Ryan Coleman with Columbia Economic Development.
More people downtown also means more demand for all kinds of services and infrastructure, like food stores, for instance.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see another grocery store or another two grocery stores pretty soon," Delk said.
Empty or underutilized land will become more expensive and more scarce. Delk said prices are already hitting $2 million an acre downtown.
So instead of developers looking to build out they will look at building up, such as putting housing over city parking garages, creating more residential and commercial activity literally out of thin air, giving South Carolina's capital city a much different skyline.
"It's really going to put us on the map," Hampton said. "And I think as a community for so long we've had an inferiority complex that we will need to overcome."
"I think our potential is really only limited by our vision," Coleman said.
One housing project proposed near the USC Horseshoe and known as The Icon on Main could be 15 stories tall. In that case, the University has objected.