2018-09-07 / News

Coble continues transformation of Columbia

Conclusion: Columbia history through the eyes of its mayors


Bob Coble along with Mayor Steve Benjamin and councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine pose next to a plaque at the decidation of Coble Plaza July 3, 2013. Bob Coble along with Mayor Steve Benjamin and councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine pose next to a plaque at the decidation of Coble Plaza July 3, 2013. Bob Coble knows if someone calls him Mr. Coble they are one of two people. They are either one of his kids’ friends or not from this area.

John Wrisley, who worked for WVOC, gave Coble the name “Mayor Bob” while on his radio show.

“I think that conveyed accessibility and all those informal traits people like that I tried to aspire to,” Coble said. “That and going to neighborhood meetings and trying to be involved sustained me during that period of time.”

While so much of the focus had been on revitalizing the Vista area, Mayor Bob also wanted to improve Columbia’s waterways. One of the first projects was the Three Rivers Greenway.

One problem stood in the way of the development, the Central Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison along the Congaree River. The prison first opened in 1866, founded during the penal reform movement. Coble knew any redevelopment of the area could not include the prison remaining. One thing that helped his efforts, was the prison’s poor conditions which had led to many officials calling for it to be shut down. After many years of the city purchasing the property and with the help of former mayor Kirkman Finlay Jr., Chief Justice Jean Toal, and Joe Sapp, the prison officially closed in 1994. The Canalside Apartments took the place of the prison.


Coble Plaza sits behind Edvenute Children’s Museum, along the Congaree River. Coble Plaza sits behind Edvenute Children’s Museum, along the Congaree River. While Coble made these moves in hopes of growing Columbia, there was one thing holding the city back. That was the Confederate Flag, which at the time flew over the dome at the South Carolina State House. The flag was originally placed on the dome in 1961 by a resolution. In 1994, Coble, along with other business leaders filed a lawsuit to bring down the flag. Richard Gergel, now a federal judge, represented Coble and the businessmen. Coble said he felt the flag was hurting business in Columbia. The response from the legislature was to pass a statute, rendering the lawsuit moot.

In 2001, the NCAA would place a ban on South Carolina from hosting any postseason tournaments. The NAACP would also boycott the state as a result of the flag.

In 2000, the flag was ultimately removed from the dome and placed on the State House grounds. It was removed from the grounds all together in 2015, in response to the Mother Emanuel AME shooting in Charleston.

Holding his position as mayor, Coble had to maintain and grow many important relationships for Columbia, including that with Richland School Districts One and Two.

“The strengths of the schools are going to determine the strength of the community, city, and county. Having a good relationship with both districts was very important,” Coble said.

His loyalties were tested in 2003 when Richland District One had to decide on the future of Dreher High School. One option was to move Dreher to the outskirts of Columbia. When that choice was eliminated and the decision was made to keep it along Millwood Avenue, it came with its own set of problems. A battle with the surrounding neighborhoods ensued, and the Melrose Heights community lost several houses as Dreher’s boundary expanded. The sacrifice from the neighborhood came with the promise that no competition fields would be built on campus, a promise that was tested in 2017 when Richland One officials had plans for a new tennis court and a multiuse field to be built at Dreher High School.

For Coble the situation was a practice in walking a tight rope. A graduate of Dreher High School himself, and a parent of six Blue Devil graduate, Coble also worked closely with the neighborhoods as part of his duties as mayor.

As the 2010 election was quickly approaching, Coble made the decision and announcement that he would not seek re-election. It ended his 20-year term as mayor.

“I think clearly 20 years was enough,” Coble said. “It wasn’t any one specific thing. I worked closely with Mayor Benjamin when he got elected and tried to do everything I could and still do today to make sure he and the city council are successful and move the city forward. I think they’ve done a wonderful job.“

While proud of his time as mayor, Coble said he never intended to stay in office as long as he did.

“I didn’t really think about it then; it just sort of happened,” Coble said. “In today’s world, compared to 1990, long term anything is not going to work. It’s a different world than it was in 1990. I don’t think anyone would want to repeat that.”

Coble originally planned to move into a role as a senior statesman, while still continuing his regular job as an attorney at Nexsen Pruett. However, life after his time as mayor has been a little busier than perhaps he anticipated. He continues to work with city council, representing many of the developments, including some at BullStreet Commons.

Coble is also chair of the World Affairs Council.

He has also worked as a lobbyist, which was his role when he suffered a heart attack at the South Carolina State House in April 2015. While Coble called his health scare a life changing event, he said he has recovered.

Coble has also received numerous honors including the dedication of Coble Plaza, outside of the Edventure Children’s Museum; the naming of a portion of the main ballroom to Coble Ballroom, the Harriet Hancock Ally Leadership Award from the South Carolina Equality for his work as mayor in promoting equal rights issues for the LGBT community; and the Martin Luther King Social Justice Award from the University of South Carolina.

Coble said he and his wife, Beth, enjoy spending time with their eight grandchildren.

Most of his six children haven’t followed in their father’s footsteps. The exception was Daniel, who ran for Columbia City Council District 3, following the departure of Belinda Gergel. Daniel lost to Moe Baddourah. While Bob Coble has supported his children in their career endeavors, he hasn’t had to bestow too much of his political experience.

“I think it’s important they all do what they want to do,” Coble said. “Of the six children, three of them are lawyers, and two of them married lawyers. That has been very gratifying. The others have interesting careers also. Politics today isn’t what it was in 1990. My advice for running for office would be colored by what it was then. I think its much different now.”

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