COLUMBIA — It’s lunchtime, and there are few signs of activity in the old state mental hospital off Bull Street, which developers hope will one day comprise the heart of a new downtown for the capital city.
Construction crews work away to finish a glimmering office building, a couple of joggers run laps around Columbia’s new baseball stadium and a few workers queue up for a food truck.
There aren’t many people around, but then, there aren’t many places for them to go: The Columbia Fireflies baseball team won’t take the field of Spirit Communications Park for a few hours, the first tenants of the new office building haven’t moved in, and plans for shops and restaurants haven’t come out of the ground.
Developers say the tide is beginning to turn on their project to redevelop the massive 181-acre hospital campus, with offices and a barbecue joint coming in the fall and a pair of residential projects on the way. But for most residents, it could be a while longer before they see the results of the city’s pledge to invest nearly $100 million — at least on a day-to-day basis.
That’s because the most-anticipated and visible portion of the project — a 31-acre retail and restaurant development that thousands of commuters pass each day on Bull Street — has taken longer than hoped to come together. The Commons at BullStreet, as the planned shopping district is known, would double the size of downtown Columbia’s retail footprint with another 400,000 square feet of space.
But that ambitious goal has been challenged by taxpayers’ sky-high expectations and a relentlessly changing retail sector that has seen chain stores retreating across the country.
And without many people living and working on-site, merchants don’t yet have a base of customers to draw from.
“Retailers are rarely pioneers,” said Matt Kennell, president and CEO of the City…