COLUMBIA — Every four years, the downtown Columbia real estate market gets some pop-up interlopers, and this year has brought a bumper crop.
At least a half-dozen 2020 Democratic presidential political campaigns have rented space in or near downtown to use as their headquarters for the Feb. 29 primary.
Some have been in the city since the spring, showing an early focus on the first-in-the-South primary. Some are in old spaces that are new again.
Former Vice President Joe Biden's field office on Taylor Street, near a 40-foot sculpture of a fire hydrant, already has worked for one campaign, said Paige Hill, the campaign's communications director in South Carolina.
Last year the same downtown building served as the campaign headquarters for James Smith's Democratic run for governor.
The Biden team is using that sign-covered office on high-traffic Taylor Street as a field office, having added a space on Columbia's Main Street across from the Richland County Courthouse as a headquarters in the past month, Hill said.
Some campaigns, such as those of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, sought out highly prominent spots. Both are leasing space amid the bustle of the Benedict College and Allen University campuses, putting them amid the students of the city's historically black schools. California Sen. Kamala Harris' office is just a block away.
Booker's office is on a busy intersection where more than 30,000 cars pass by each day. O'Rourke's field office is in a building that was occupied by Matilda Evans, the first female African American physician in Columbia.
"By being in close proximity to two incredible HBCUs — Allen University and Benedict College — we have the exciting opportunity to ensure that our campaign is able to engage with HBCU students and elevate their critical voices in our effort to elect Beto the next president of the United States," Lauren Harper, state director for the O'Rourke campaign, said.
Others have taken up more sedate office space. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has a downtown spot in a small office park with its signs facing the parking lot. Those driving by would never see it.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has an office space not far from downtown Columbia but is looking to find more centralized downtown space, according to Macon Lovelace, a partner at the real estate firm Trinity Partners.
Campaigns have to secure space to build their staffs out as they grow, but as veteran staffers know, the fate of any campaign is uncertain. Often that is reflected in the terms of the leases that they sign.
Some of the bigger Democratic campaigns signed one-year leases for space back in April, Lovelace said. Other campaigns have set up shop more recently and are renting space for six months and paying in advance, Lovelace said.
Often, because the tenants will be in the space for such a short time, the properties are rented on an "as-is" basis with no upgrades put in beforehand, Lovelace said.
Landlords of commercial space usually would want tenants that stay longer than one political campaign, so some are not too enthusiastic at the thought of renting space to a campaign for a short-term stay of six months or a year. They rather would wish to land a tenant that would sign a three-year to five-year lease.
"Landlords don't like tenants moving in and out because the public perception is that someone hasn't made it," said Patrick Palmer, who heads up commercial real estate for NAI Columbia.
Some landlords also decide not to pursue political tenants because they don't share the campaigns views or just don't want to get grief from those in their social circle about whom they accept as tenants, Palmer said.
Columbia's market has gotten tighter in the past few years, with the economy strengthening and relatively little retail space being added. That means that companies might be paying a bit more than they might have in 2012 and the space might not be as nicely finished, Lovelace said.
After the election passes, the spaces will go back on the market, with some being put to new uses at retail sites promptly and others sitting open, possibly being used again in the next cycle.
South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham again is using the same spot in a Columbia shopping center away from downtown for a campaign office as he has in his previous senatorial runs, Palmer said. Graham even rented it again during his short-lived bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
That shopping and office center is getting an influx of new tenants, Palmer said, so it might not have space six years from now for another possible senatorial campaign.