IRMO — The small Midlands town known for its annual Okra Strut is moving forward with plans to build a “Main Street” downtown district to create a more vibrant restaurant, bar, retail and hotel scene.
“All the municipalities that touch our borders, they have a vibrant Main Street, said Kerry Powers, president of the Irmo Chamber of Commerce. “When Irmo was planned, we were just a little railroad town that supplied the folks that built the (Lake Murray) dam back in the early ’20s. So nobody thought to plan a Main Street district, and Irmo just grew up and it really doesn’t have a central focal point.”
Irmo, which has 11,600 residents in both Richland and Lexington counties, has the requisite chain stores and a number of sprawling residential developments through the town.
What it lacks is a central business district that neighboring cities use to attract residents and visitors. A Main Street will make Irmo a destination, as opposed to a passage point on the way to Lake Murray, Irmo Town Councilman Bill Danielson said.
Irmo’s proposed downtown is planned for a wooded area next to the Community Park of Irmo, where the okra festival is held.
The location was selected because of its accessibility to the park. Town Council members picture people grabbing a beer at the nearby brewery, stopping in for ice cream on the same street and catching a concert in the neighboring park, all in one trip.
However, the proposed downtown currently stands as a narrow and unpaved road, surrounded by residential neighborhoods, presenting the town with a project unlike most other downtown developments in the state.
“We’ve got to give people a reason to come here,” Powers said. “We keep trying to put lipstick on a pig here. Let’s put the money in it, and do what we need to do to make people spend their dollars here.”
Irmo’s council took first steps on the Main Street development in a Dec. 20 meeting, approving the purchase of a neighboring property and hiring of a real estate acquisition firm to help with the project.
The initial idea for a downtown in Irmo came in 2020, after the local chamber sent a survey to residents asking what improvements they would like to see. Residents said they wanted a reason to stay in Irmo for entertainment and food, instead of driving 10 miles south to Lexington or 10 miles east to Columbia, Powers said.
Irmo is looking for inspiration from its neighbors as well as towns in the Upstate that recently did some downtown work, including Greenville, Greer and Fountain Inn, members of the council said. But those cities were revamping existing downtowns.
“I mean, you’re kind of creating a downtown out of nothing, right?” said Bryan Beal, a Greenville-based real estate developer who has spoken with Irmo about opening a brewery on its planned “Main Street.”
Irmo Mayor Barry Walker said downtown location is ideal because of its proximity to residential neighborhoods that will see property values rise.
“This is very unique what they’re trying to accomplish here, which is great, and the city’s being so proactive with it,” Beal said.
Although the idea has been bounced around for a couple of years, a bump in town funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, federal pandemic relief funding that was distributed across the nation’s state and local governments, propelled the plan forward.
In addition to ARPA money, Danielson said, the town will fund the project through hospitality tax collection and bonds. Because Irmo does not charge residential property tax, a boost in business licenses, hospitality tax and permitting fees would provide the town with some additional money, he said.
Danielson said he hopes to open the street in two years, but Beal predicts the project will take between four and six years, depending on the town’s strategy.
“This is something that they’re gonna have to decide: Do they want it to be incremental growth … or do they want it to be all at once just have this, you know, huge kind of grand-opening type of thing?” Beal said.