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Main Street Seating Just the Beginning for What’s Next Midlands

The theme for July’ First Thursday on Main Street in Columbia is Post-Independence Day Rocking on the Plaza, and those coming to listen to the music can take advantage of the new movable seating supplied by What’s Next Columbia, and offer suggestions for what comes next for What’s Next.

“There’s no stopping,” said Meghan Hickman, executive director of EngenuitySC, the economic development nonprofit which manages the What’s Next projects. “The hope is that we use the momentum” from the first project to inspire others.

The second What’s Next Midlands project will be announced in August, and the program team hopes to complete one project per quarter over the next year. What’s Next began with conversations among friends and has grown into a community effort to make the Midlands an even better place to live.

“There was no shortage of wonderful ideas to improve the community, but there was no platform, no forum for those ideas to be shared and vetted,” Hickman explained. Those first conversations led to the involvement of Engenuity, and to initial funding through a $34,000 Connected Communities Grant from Central Carolina Community Foundation. The next step was asking for ideas from the community, and the results came fast: more than 400 ideas submitted in four weeks.

“We were totally overwhelmed and blown away by how quickly the community mobilized and shared their ideas,” Hickman said. “There is an engaged community here just waiting to be tapped into.”

The next step was deciding which of the many good ideas to implement first. That process started with online voting open to all to narrow the field to 20. The What’s Next board then chose eight finalists based on impact, viability, cost, and other factors. The final vote was left in the hands of the project’s private investors, “Folks who’ve chosen to give of their personal dollars because they believe in this idea,” as Hickman described them.

The growing popularity of Main Street made the movable tables and chairs the choice for the first project, and the seating was used for the first time at the Soda City Market on July 3. Volunteers from Columbia Opportunity Resource (COR) and the City Center Partnership (CCP) “yellow shirt” team set up and took down the tables and chairs, and will do so again Thursday.

“This is regional collaboration at its very best,” Hickman said of What’s Next. The program’s management team also includes representatives from the Junior LeagueKRIT and Evolution Partners, and Free Times as a media partner. “Results are much better achieved when you work as a team.”

Those with ideas for future projects can submit them online or in person at many local events including Soda City and First Thursday. “This whole effort belongs to the community,” Hickman said.

The full schedule for July’s First Thursday is available here.

Pictured: People using the What’s Next Midlands tables and chairs at the July 2 Soda City Market (photo by Allen Wallace)

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