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 Center Partnership, a downtown-focused economic development group. "No one wants to be first."

Chicken and egg

Developers' next steps point to something of a new strategy for luring shops and restaurants: bring the customers in first.

If the development, which overall goes by the name BullStreet, and its retail ambitions have a chicken-and-egg problem, its developers are looking for other ways to get people on site.

"The way I look at it, where there are people, there will be retail," said Beronica Whisnant, the BullStreet’s real estate director. "That's their bread and butter."

BullStreet has made some advances. The Columbia Fireflies are deep into their second season at Spirit Communications Park, where the minor league baseball team has attracted nearly 250,000 fans, representing most residents’ first glimpse of the redevelopment project.

The first tenant of the glimmering new First Base Building — a law firm — moved in about a year ago and an insurance technology firm will move in this fall. The building offers views overlooking the stadium. Bone-In Barbecue will open beside the ballpark around the same time. Already Founders Federal Credit Union has opened a branch in the new office building, and the co-working space SoCo is housed in a renovated bakery nearby.

Meanwhile, plans are being drawn up for a large city park behind the ballpark's left field stands, and two residential development projects have been announced, bringing 28 townhouses and a 196-unit senior living complex to the site in the next few years. Downtown Church is renovating the hospital's energy facility for a new sanctuary, which developers donated to the Presbyterian congregation.

Plenty of other plans have been pitched — a hotel by the ballpark and apartments in the prominent, red-domed Babcock Building — but they've not taken shape. The same is true for a new 16-acre campus for the University of South Carolina's medical school along Harden Street: The university has approved the idea, but it's waiting for state lawmakers to set aside money for the project.

Robert Hughes, BullStreet's project manager, points to those plans and says the development is ahead of schedule. In all, 60 percent of the massive site is under contract or under construction. 

Retail shakeup

To many people who have ventured to the BullStreet development, there's not much to see yet. From the road, the mental hospital still looks mostly empty, with worn-down buildings and overgrown grounds.

That's raised skepticism about a project that was controversial from the moment City Council voted in 2013 to commit nearly $100 million to the project, including most of the cost of the $37 million ballpark.

Developers say they can't tear down the old buildings without lining up plans to replace them in order to secure tax credits for rehabilitating a historic site. And it's not clear when the retail development that would take their place will start to come out of the ground.

Retail deals were expected to start coming down in 2015, then in late 2016. Halfway through 2017, the Commons at BullStreet development has made no announcements.

"If you don't see activity on those 30 acres, it's hard to see where anything's happening out there," said Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall, who opposed the city’s funding of the ballpark but now supports the development. "It will develop. But I think you've got to have a tipping point of either people working on the site or living on the site before you're going to have a lot of commitments in brick-and-mortar retail stores."

The pace of progress owes at least partly to turmoil in the retail business nationwide, which has seen suburban big-box stores bleed and smaller urban shops shelve their expansion plans.

Online sales have chipped away at brick-and-mortar chains for years, and that reality has hit home hard this year. Several national chains announced plans to close stores, including J.C. Penney, Macy's, Sears and Staples.

And while BullStreet officials say they're not interested in attracting big-box stores, market researchers and city boosters say the suburbs' troubles have had a chilling effect on downtown Columbia.

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"All retailers, including local and national, are reevaluating how they fit in when the dust settles," Commons developer Jackson Hughes said in an email. "We would rather get it right than quick." 

Thousands more people — mostly University of South Carolina students — have moved into the city center, where hardly anyone lived just a few years ago. A downtown building boom has helped attract plenty of interest in Columbia for new businesses.

Despite the growth, hardly any shops are inking deals to move in, said Scottie Smith, a Columbia-based retail broker at Colliers International, which is involved in leasing space near the new ballpark.

"There are not dozens and dozens and dozens of deals being done in Five Points, the Vista and other areas of Columbia that BullStreet's missing out on," Smith said of activity in Columbia's other business districts. "The deals are just slow."

Instead, bars, restaurants and service providers, such as salons, account for most of the activity, said Kennell of the City Center Partnership. And the most successful retailers downtown — such as clothier Grainger Owings and outdoor merchant Mast General Store — are selling an experience as much clothing or gifts, he said.

Ambitious plans

In that evolving landscape, BullStreet has sought to advance plans that would transform retail in Columbia.

While Robert Hughes is quick to caution that the overall redevelopment project isn't meant to be retail-focused, just about everything about BullStreet is steeped in ambition.

The mental hospital site is so big that it would cover virtually all of downtown Greenville or the shopping districts in Charleston south of Calhoun Street. So while less than a fifth of the site is designated for shopping, it's still a large undertaking.

Jackson Hughes said his plans still call for 400,000 square feet of ground-level space, just as they did when the project got under way three years ago. 

That would essentially double the market for retail real estate in downtown Columbia, according to Colliers. At the end of last year, the city center had about 406,000 square feet total, including the Vista and Five Points shopping and entertainment districts.

What shape the retail development will eventually take at BullStreet is something of a moving target, and developers say they're trying to stay flexible as the retail sector shakes out. The square footage they eventually build will include bars and restaurants, not just storefronts, and it's not likely to emerge all at once.

"We have to be flexible and respond to the market but also not put ourselves in a position where we build something that doesn't meet what the market needs — not in 2017, but in year 2037," said Robert Hughes, whose father, Bob, is credited with reviving downtown Greenville. "In a site that's 181 acres, it's a lot of dirt. The market itself isn't going to absorb it all in that time frame, either."

Correction: A law firm moved into BullStreet's First Base Building about a year ago.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.