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CityWatch: NY Times Does BullStreet Puff Piece — And We Must Capitalize On It

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Bull Street trees

Officials say as many as 70 trees were removed from the BullStreet site as preparations were made for the construction of the REI Co-op store and for additional road work in the site.

“From Former Mental Hospital to Recreational Hub” — The New York Times headline, July 23

And so began a puff piece on the BullStreet project that one might have thought came from Mayor Steve Benjamin’s office, not a major national newspaper.

But that’s OK, we’ll take it! The New York Times’ glowing but shallow article can and should be used in a major way by both the City of Columbia and Hughes Development Corporation to promote the six-years-on-and-still-fledgling project, which Columbia taxpayers very much need to succeed. 

That’s because we have a lot of money on the line, way more than Bob Hughes. He bought what was once called the State Lunatic Asylum property for $18 million, while City Council obligated us to invest some $100 million in tax money at the site for the new minor league baseball stadium, roads and other infrastructure, as well as parking decks (if, Lord willing, those decks are needed for future development at the site).

While there was essentially no mention in The New York Times story of the failure of BullStreet to deliver on the major public announcement by Hughes and Benjamin in 2014 that 41 shops and restaurants were already signed on for the project (which was then being pitched as a shopping mecca), such is the nature of media cheerleading as opposed to serious reporting.

But again, we’ll take it! And while five years later the count is now one restaurant and zero shops at BullStreet, that one restaurant is a good one (Bone-In Barbecue) and the first retail store is under construction (REI, a recreational equipment store).

Personally, what matters most to me about BullStreet is this sentence from the article: “Hughes also anticipates that Clachan Properties, a Richmond developer, will gain approval for a $42 million renovation of the 200,000-square-foot Babcock Building ... the building’s red cupola and Italianate entrance, constructed in the 1880s, are the project’s architectural focal point.” 

If that actually happens, the whole project was worth it and will be a success. Otherwise, we got taken.

And frankly, I’m fine if BullStreet doesn’t become a shopping mecca — especially if they’re going to clear-cut the magnificent old trees on the property like they did for the REI site, a terrible decision that should never have been allowed and showed no recognition of or respect for one of the most compelling aspects of the historic site.

By the way, it’s also surprising that REI, a store that sells clothing and equipment with which to explore the great outdoors, would go along with clear-cutting all the trees on and around the site of its new Columbia location. Ironic, huh?

But mistakes notwithstanding — financial, environmental or otherwise — we need BullStreet to succeed. And the New York Times story may be able to help with that in a big way. 

The article gives the project some sizzle, something that is always good and which a large-scale plan like this very much needs if it is going to become an actual large-scale development.

I urge both the city and Hughes to make the New York Times story a big deal in the development world, repackaging and delivering the article in clever ways to every potential investor they are talking with and others they would like to.

And I don’t mean just send them an email with a link to the article. While that’s the easy and obvious thing to do (as they’ve already done to those of us on their email list), I’m talking about putting a creative version of it physically in the hands of developers and other investment targets, something that will both gain attention and make an impression. And perhaps result in some follow-up inquiries.

I think Hughes Development and the City of Columbia could use that approach to capitalize on the New York Times puff piece. 

I mean, excellent article. And we’ll take it!  

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics. 

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