USC pitches major project that could transform Williams-Brice area, other parts of Columbia
After months of rumors and online whispers, officials with the University of South Carolina on Tuesday announced plans to pursue an aggressive development project that could could top $1 billion in investment and bring fundamental changes to Williams-Brice Stadium, areas around the stadium and other parts of Columbia.
The university is seeking proposals from developers both to revamp the football stadium and potentially develop some 900 acres of land USC owns near the stadium and the Congaree River.
“We believe this could be a game changer for our university,” USC Athletics Director Ray Tanner said in a news release. “These projects are envisioned to create a fan experience second-to-none in college athletics. We are also looking at expanding the variety of events and opportunities these enhancements can bring.”
In opening a formal Request for Information process for potential developers, the university is looking to generate “significant” private funding for stadium improvements and expand the venue’s use for other public events, officials say.
Senior university officials estimated the overall project could cost more than $1 billion, with hopes that the vast majority of that would come from private funding from developers. Tanner said the university is hopeful that, when completed, the project would have aspects that could bring people to the Williams-Brice Stadium area “365 days a year.”
Tanner said Tuesday afternoon said it could take 12 to 15 months for initial plans to come together, considering requests for information and proposals, bidding and other state procurement procedures. Construction timelines would become more clear once a concrete plan is on the table, though top university officials on Tuesday urged patience.
Rumors of a major development deal in the works for USC have been percolating in Columbia since last fall. In November, social media missives swirled indicating that USC was planning to buy the South Carolina State Fairgrounds, which for years have been just north of Williams-Brice Stadium. Both the university and officials with the fairgrounds flatly denied that rumor at the time, and university employees again denied it on Tuesday.
However, as noted in a November piece in The State, longtime S.C. Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Richland County Democrat, said at the time that the school was working on “another project in proximity to that area.”
On Tuesday, a slightly clearer picture of that project came into focus.
University sources said Williams-Brice will stay where it is, and the university won’t be acquiring additional property. They also said that the project woulld not lead to any disruption of future home football game schedules.
While senior university officials said they are open-minded about what suggestions they might receive from their request for information from developers, they said Tuesday that renovations in Williams-Brice Stadium would likely be a part of phase one.
“We don’t have enough suites,” at Williams-Brice, Tanner said, noting that is just one area for potential stadium renovation.
“We have a once in a generation opportunity to move forward on needed facility improvements,” Ed Walton, USC’s chief financial officer and executive vice president for administration, said in a news release.
Aside from renovations to the stadium itself, the first phase of the project could also make use of nearly 900 acres USC or its foundation owns near Williams-Brice. Of that acreage, all of which is south and east of Bluff Road and the stadium, nearly 850 acres are in a flood plain, as noted in a reference map of the area provided by USC.
That flood plain acreage was, years ago, part of what was to be the “Green Diamond” project — unaffiliated with USC — that would have been a $1 billion “city within a city” that was to included fancy homes, golf courses and retail. However, that development never came to pass. Since then, the 4,500-acre chunk of land has been sold off piecemeal. USC and its development foundation now own two chunks of it, collectively totaling nearly 850 acres.
Senior university officials said Tuesday morning that the fact some of the acreage is in a flood plain does create a challenge. However, they said they are hopeful, through the Request for Information process, to learn more about what possibilities exist for development on the property.
The university also has identified 17 acres near Colonial Life Arena for a potential second phase of the project, which is currently a surface parking lot, and several properties owned or leased by USC.
The initial Request for Information seeking development pitches will be open for one month. The process is “only intended to gather input and is for market research purposes only,” the university said.
“Data presented by respondents can help the University more clearly define and test its assumptions around a project of this nature enabling its leadership to make well-informed decisions about potential next steps,” the university said in a statement.
A website about the project has been set up at www.GamecocksOnline.com/StadiumProject.
‘What can we do?’
Tanner told reporters Tuesday morning that the potential development project at the stadium and on surrounding or nearby properties has been discussed in background talks for some time.
“This is something where we have a blank canvas that can affect so many people,” Tanner said. “Students, student-athletes, the student section, our fanbase, the city of Columbia, job creation. The time that I’ve spent working on this is probably almost two years now, to get to this point of doing a (request for information). It’s exciting. There are not any negatives. It is, ‘What can we do?’”
Additional details about the types of development USC could be looking for around the stadium were not yet available by press time. But previous rumors about stadium-area development have included concepts such as condos, hotels and restaurants.
Tanner and other top university officials stressed Tuesday that USC doesn’t yet have exacting plans for what could be developed at properties around the stadium, or in the second phase that would be near Colonial Life Arena. That’s the reason it is seeking information from developers and experts.
“There will be other things than just what goes on inside the stadium,” Tanner told reporters. “There will be experiences outside the stadium, in the vicinity ... that will go on on non-Saturdays, other days throughout the year. ... We could bring people to this area 365 days a year, potentially. It would bring people to this area, if, in fact, it as expansive and as impactful as we think it could be.”
‘People want premium experiences’
While it is set off to the southeast of downtown Columbia, Williams-Brice Stadium becomes the central focus of the city for seven Saturdays each fall, during the Gamecocks’ football games that draw upwards of 80,000 fans.
The stadium was built in 1934 by the Works Progress Administration and initially accommodated just less than 18,000 fans. There have been a host of expansions and upgrades across the years, both directly to the stadium and to the areas directly surrounding it.
For instance, in 2015 there was the $14.5 million Springs Brooks Plaza project, which vastly improved the aesthetics and walkways in the direct circumference of the stadium that sits at the corner of Bluff Road and George Rogers Boulevard. And in 2020, there was a multi-million dollar project to bring upgrades to the Traditions Club, Horseshoe Club and Cockaboose Club inside the stadium. As of 2022, the capacity of Williams-Brice Stadium is 77,559.
Tanner said modern sports fans’ expectations have changed in regard to what they expect when they attend major games and athletic events.
“It is is certainly evident that people want premium experiences,” Tanner said. “They want to have good parking. They want to have great food. They want to have luxury boxes, if that suits them. Or great seating or chair-back (seats) or whatever the case may be. It’s the experience. I think we have improved on that greatly at Williams-Brice, but certainly there is room to grow.”
While talk of potential suites and premium additions peppered Tuesday’s conversation between Tanner and a local media contingent, he stressed the average fan would be kept in mind.
“I would say this concerns the average fan, as well,” Tanner said of USC’s would-be development plans. We are not turning the entire stadium into premium seating. But we may have the opportunity to enhance the general seating. ... This does not exclude them. We will include them, as well, when we go through the process of any type of phases we go through and changes we make.”