Problem intersection in Lexington getting funds from failed controversial Lake Murray resort

One of Lexington’s busiest intersections is slated for a major overhaul, thanks in part to millions in state funding that originally would have gone toward a controversial conference center and resort at Lake Murray, a project that was shouted down by intense public backlash.

The roads project will address the often frustrating intersection between crowded two-lane Corley Mill Road and Sunset Boulevard/U.S. 378, a key four-lane connector between the town of Lexington and West Columbia. The two roads come together right at Sunset’s intersection with Interstate 20.

The state has committed $16 million for what’s being called the Sunset Split project, included in the South Carolina budget that’s still under negotiation.

The project to reshape the bothersome junction was initially announced in 2020. Plans have shifted since that reveal, and exact details on how the intersection will be reworked are forthcoming. The town will match the state’s $16 million contribution to pay for the project, drawing from hospitality tax revenue and tax increment funding established previously to pay for road improvements in the Corley Mill area.

“This is not a town road,” Lexington Mayor Hazel Livingston said, noting that the intersection isn’t technically the town’s responsibility. “But we feel it important that we do all we can inside the town limits to improve traffic and to do things to represent the citizens in the town.”

The mayor noted the pivotal role the intersections between Corley Mill Road, Sunset Boulevard and I-20 play in connecting Lexington to other parts of the Midlands.

“There’s a lot of development around that area. It’s a lot of people that travel, coming from different areas to go to the hospital and other businesses, to work. Downtown Columbia, coming from Irmo, they travel some of that area,” she said. “You’ve got the new high school (River Bluff, built in 2013) that has affected that intersection. I think we had over 500 students graduate this past year from there. That’s the reason it was important to partner with (Lexington) School District 1 to make this as safe and as efficient as can be.”

The $16 million from the state was initially granted to pay for design, infrastructure and construction for a conference center that would have been built as part of Smallwood Cove, a project announced for the shores of Lake Murray by the town of Lexington in May 2023. That resort would have encompassed 94 acres, with plans calling for a hotel attached to a town-run conference center along with a marina, retail spaces and living spaces.

Backlash against the resort was swift, with many residents questioning how the development near the Lake Murray Dam would impact traffic along busy North Lake Drive/S.C. 6, as well as legal concerns about Lexington’s plans to annex non-contiguous property into the town, which hinged on the fact that you could see the site from a spot along the shore that lies within the town limits.

With the controversy over Smallwood Cove showing no signs of dying down, the property owners withdrew their annexation request two months later.

Mayor Livingston said she along with the town administrator and transportation director made a direct appeal to the county’s state representatives and senators to move the money planned for the conference center to the road work instead.

A representative for the Smallwood Cove property owners declined to comment on the transfer of funds.

Both Livingston and Lexington Town Councilman Gavin Smith credited S.C. Rep. Chris Wooten, R-Lexington, and S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, with helping secure state funding for the traffic project.

“This couldn’t be a better example of a government body listening to its citizens and directly acting on their wishes,” Smith said. “We heard their voices. Their number one priority is traffic and infrastructure improvements.”

Wooten echoed this sentiment, saying he was responding to public feedback in the aftermath of the Smallwood Cove announcement that indicated many people would rather have that money used to address concerns with infrastructure and traffic.

“There’s taxpayer money sitting still for a project that may or may not ever happen,” Wooten said. “If there’s money out there, I feel it’s my job to bring it back to Lexington County rather than it going to Charleston or Greenville or wherever. Because if it goes back and gets repurposed, it’s going somewhere else.”

Smith noted that the Corley Mill Road/Sunset Boulevard intersection is the leading project on the town’s list of infrastructure priorities due to the traffic it sees.

According to the S.C. Department of Transportation, 13,600 cars drive through Corley Mill Road daily near its junction with Sunset Boulevard, meeting up with that larger highway along a stretch that sees 33,000 cars each day.

“We hear directly from residents on Corley Mill Road, businesses on 378, and even residents going down into the West Columbia area that there is consistently traffic congestion at this area,” Smith said. “Tackling that traffic congestion head on with a $16 million investment will help us make substantial improvements.”

Part of Wooten’s reasoning for moving the funds is he sees no chance of the Smallwood Cove project being rekindled in the near future, and if anything does come to pass at that spot, improving the intersection at Corley Mill Road and Sunset Boulevard would mitigate its impact on local traffic.

“There’s no political environment, there’s no community environment that wants development until we get a handle on the infrastructure and the needs of the infrastructure around Lexington County,” Wooten said, noting the scuttled resort’s proximity to the intersection of North Lake Drive and Corley Mill Road. “If Smallwood Cove was developed, just think about how many cars would come off on 378, come down Corley Mill Road. To me, if something is ever developed there, it would just help traffic flow even better.”

This story may be updated with more details.