By Marc Rapport
People regularly stop at The Bakery at BullStreet building on the old State Hospital grounds and knock on the door, asking what’s for sale.
Software, maybe, but not sweet goods. The Bakery is indeed an old bakery but it’s now the second location of SOCO, the “shared office Columbia” co-working platform that first opened its doors in 2013 in the Vista.
It had been a long time since the 4,000-square-foot structure had been used when Bob Hughes and Hughes Development began eyeing occupants for their massive new project, but it took little time for Greg Hilton and his partners to jump aboard as the first occupants of a restored building on the property.
Hilton is a co-founder of SOCO, a serial entrepreneur himself, and a passionate believer in the vision for SOCO and the BullStreet redevelopment project.
“We were happy with the progress we made building a community of creators and innovators who made our Gervais Street location their work home, and we always had a vision of expansion,” Hilton said. “When Bob Hughes and Hughes Development met with us and showed us what they were thinking, what was possible here, we were all in.”
All in includes a new space replete with natural lighting, exposed beams, super high-speed internet, free coffee, old plastered walls festooned with eclectic art, and a growing population of web designers, internet marketers, software developers, writers and digital artists.
What this disparate group does share is a sense of creativity and a desire for community. “That’s what we’re really in the business of here,” Hilton said. “We try to find incredibly talented people, recruit them into our ecosystem, and give them everything they need to be successful.”
He added, “We’re building a community that is digital as well as physical, since our people work from here, work from home, connect with their offices, if they have them, all over the country, and stay in touch with us when they move on.”
Both SOCO sites also serve as a platform for building entrepreneurship and creativity in the city, serving as a host site and sometimes sponsoring itself a variety of technology-based social meet-ups and business meetings.
But primarily it’s about being home base for this creative crowd that gets bored being alone. “Working at home and alone is tough for these folks,” Hilton said. “Coming together like this creates a casual, collaborative atmosphere that brings together people engaged in really diverse endeavors in ways that helps them share insights and new ways of looking at things that they’d normally never encounter, either at home or in a traditional office.”
The address is officially 1721 Saunders St. in the BullStreet Technology Village and it has helped SOCO double its membership in the past year. SOCO memberships cost $75 per month for occasional users, $200 per month for Flex members who enjoy access to all locations, and $300 per month for members who want to work from a fixed desk at one location. All memberships include access to Wi-Fi, a printer, a kitchen and free coffee. Group rates also are available.
Hilton said he expects rapid growth to continue as the Bull Street property itself builds out.
“People get caught up in the headlines about economic development here, but at the end of the day it starts with making individual decisions about what you want and need to meet your goals, to see your vision through,” Hilton said. “That’s what our members are doing here. They’re deciding this is the place to do that.”
The Bakery is across from the right outfield fence of the $37 million Spirit Communications Park, which opened in 2016 and serves as the home of the Columbia Fireflies professional baseball team.
While waiting for the restaurants, shops and living spaces to develop around that anchor attraction, Hilton is aware of the criticism the city and developers have faced from critics questioning the Bull Street project’s progress and possibilities.
“I say to them and everybody who cares about Columbia’s future: Understand that this is a long process but with a great end game. Understand the vision. It’ll be incredible here when it’s fulfilled.
“And we’re super thrilled to be a part of it.”