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July 14--Two new restaurants are planned for the former Columbia Fire Department headquarters building at the corner of Senate and Park streets in The Vista.

The building, being renovated by a Virginia Beach-based real estate investment firm, will house the Kao Thai Cuisine restaurant, a sister restaurant to the Tamarind restaurant in Asheville.

A second undisclosed restaurant is slated for the historic eight-bay fire station with its distinctive training tower. Developer Christopher Mein of Wheeler Real Estate Investment Trust said the restaurant will be operated by "a seasoned restaurant group with ties to Columbia and Charleston."

The second restaurant operator is also contemplating turning the second story of the building into a large event space, he said. And there is still room on the 13,000-square-foot first floor for a third retail tenant.

The gray metal bay doors will be replaced by glass doors that would open up to sidewalk seating to the tree line on Senate Street, said Jon Wheeler, the company's founder and chairman.

Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides investment in the Vista and other areas of downtown, said he was "thrilled" by the renovations.

"This is exactly what we want," said Delk, who spent nearly two decades saving the building from demolition and then attempting to broker a deal for its reuse.

Wheeler purchased the building in July 2015 for $2.5 million from Columbia developer Tom Prioreshi, who had previously purchased it from the city for $1.45 million. Wheeler is presently sinking another $5 million into the structure.

"We're working on delivering our space at the end of this year or early next year," Mein said.

Phase one of the project focuses on the eight-bay building fronting Senate Street, catty-cornered from the Hilton Columbia Center Hotel. Phase two will involve demolishing a warehouse behind the headquarters building, but preserving the training tower, Wheeler said.

"The fire tower is not going anywhere," Wheeler said. "What we would like to do is find a boutique hotel operator that would incorporate the tower into the hotel."

Wheeler is also thinking about installing a beacon of some sort on top of the tower, if city codes would allow it.

"It could be lit up during special events and on game days," he said.

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