Hot spot: Midlands attractions garnering awards and tourists

For Columbia city leaders, the recent announcement that the South Carolina State Museum has earned the Governor’s Cup Award from the South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department is proof that the Midlands is becoming one the state’s hottest spots for travel and tourism.

The new observatory dome is lifted to the roof of the South Carolina State Museum Wednesday (photo by Allen Wallace).

The new observatory dome is lifted to the roof of the South Carolina State Museum in 2014 (staff photo).

“We can really create a cultural destination,” said Willie Calloway, executive director of the State Museum, the third institution to be recognized statewide this year for its efforts to provide entertainment and education to visitors.

The museum unveiled a $23 million renovation and expansion project, called “Windows to New Worlds,” in August 2014. The attraction includes such features as a planetarium, a 4D Theatre and an observatory.

The project followed national trends in museums that are geared toward engaging children in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Calloway said. Not only did the project receive state and local government funding, he said, it also received support from South Carolina’s leader in the aeronautics industry, Boeing.

With the new addition, the State Museum has become a multidisciplinary attraction that tells the story of the state through art, science and history, Calloway said.

“We’re bringing new dollars into the area and the Midlands,” he said.”It’s kind of a theory — the longer people will stay in your facility, the longer they will travel to come visit it.” That thinking is what has allowed the museum to generate a $22 million economic impact in Columbia since the “Windows to New Worlds” exhibit opened, he added.

The South Carolina State Museum is just one of many examples of Columbia’s push toward building a world-class city, said Mayor Steve Benjamin.

“Columbia has always enjoyed robust business travel,” Benjamin said in an interview with Cola Daily. “We want to dramatically increase leisure travel to the region. It’s an exciting time.”

Whether it’s bass fishing in Lake Murray or minor league baseball in the new Spirit Communications Park, Benjamin said careful planning has led to a significant increase in tourism in the Columbia area.

“Columbia has a really solid tourism economy. This is our window to really start leveraging all the great assets we have,” he said. “Investing in the arts and culture is a winner. It’s an essential part of our economic development infrastructure.”

Data from the Midlands Authority for Convention, Sports and Tourism backs up the mayor’s claims. Tourism is a $1.9 billion industry in the greater Columbia area and brings in 14.5 million visitors annually. It also generates $101 million in state and local taxes each year.

“We have numerous attractions that draw visitors from not only all over the state, but from all over the region, the country and the world,” said Bill Ellen, executive director of the Midlands Authority. “Over one weekend alone, the South Carolina State House has drawn visitors from 14 different states. Famously Hot New Year and Congaree National Park attract international attendees.”

Columbia’s tourism industry also is bolstered by the city’s growing business districts, including the Vista, Main Street and Five Points. Dining, shopping and entertainment support the regional economy’s insurance, education, government and military sectors, which allows the city to attract and retain talented people, Benjamin said.

“We live in very different age now,” he said. “Now industry follows talent. People are deciding on where they want to live first.”

The Woodrow Wilson Family Home: A Museum of Reconstruction in Columbia and Richland County (photo by Allen Wallace)

The Woodrow Wilson Family Home: A Museum of Reconstruction in Columbia and Richland County (staff photo).

The key to maintaining and growing tourism in the Midlands is financial support from local government, Ellen said.

“Funding dollars are the lifeblood of our attractions,” he said. “Improving upon our attractions — like the South Carolina State Museum, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, Historic Columbia and the Columbia Museum of Art, to name a few — in turn improves our ability to market them to visitors.”

Examples of such local government support for tourism include Richland County’s $3 million investment in the Historic Columbia’s Woodrow Wilson Family Home restoration project, which garnered three state preservation awards. And the Columbia Museum of Art, thanks in part to its share of the city’s hospitality tax revenue, has brought to the Midlands exhibits featuring such renowned artists as Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Courtney Curran.

The art museum and the Richland Library have been named finalists for the 2016 National Medal of Museum and Library Sciences.

Yet another Columbia tourist attraction, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, soon will restore a popular sea lion exhibit and unveil a renovated children’s garden, thanks to $36 million in funding from Richland and Lexington counties.

Calloway said his next goal for the South Carolina State Museum is to completely renovate three floors of permanent exhibits that have been in place since the museum opened in 1988. That process will take five or six years to complete, but concept designs for the 150,000-square-foot space are in the works, he said.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Calloway said, “and all the feedback we’ve gotten has been positive.”

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