Press and Media

Former Bakery Reinvented as Tech Hub for BullStreet Project

Originally published Tuesday, October 18, 2016 at:

By Michael Fitts

A building that for decades served as the bakery at the Department of Mental Health campus in Columbia now hosts a co-working space, which its leaders hope will spur the growth of a high-tech community on the campus.

The longtime bakery now hosts the second location of SOCO co-working and event space, where freelancers and other solo professionals or startup businesses can find a place to work and collaborate. It also serves as the classroom site for The Iron Yard, a school that offers intensive courses in software programming skills.

The building served as the bakery for the Mental Health campus for the first half of the 20th century. Now the building is a wide-open workspace with the exposed brick and 20-foot-high ceilings that show its pedigree, plus new gigabit-speed Internet capability provided by Spirit Wireless, sponsors of the adjacent Spirit Communications Park, where the minor-league Columbia Fireflies play.

“It has been incredibly energizing to work with this team to activate one of the most unique spaces on the campus – and I have to say, the view of the baseball stadium from the back porch of the bakery is beyond cool,” said Robert Hughes, chief operating officer at Hughes Development Corp., master developers of the huge Bull Street property.

The bakery’s combination of old-time feel with the latest digital connections will be an immediate draw for many creative individuals, said Greg Hilton, co-founder of SOCO. “It will draw people in, but that’s not why they stay,” he said.

What will keep them as customers will be the collaborative nature of the space and the feeling of being on the cutting edge of something new in Columbia, he said. The building is wide open on purpose, Hilton said. That’s to allow conversation and ideas to flow around the room. People aren’t just expected to work side by side. The objective of Hilton and his partners is that people will bounce ideas off each other and find new ways to collaborate.

Now that SOCO has added the Bull Street facility to its Vista location, Hilton said the co-working group hopes to keep adding clients and tapping into the vitality in the air in Columbia. Part of his goal is to keep building the local talent pool for the tech industry and other businesses well-supplied and well-connected, he said.

Bringing talented people into information technology also is the major focus of the building’s other tenant, The Iron Yard. Founded in Greenville, The Iron Yard has established locations across the Southeast that teach programming, and also it operates its own co-working spaces in numerous cities. Heather Dughaish, campus director for The Iron Yard, hears regularly from employers both big and small  about how the great need for students with the kinds of skills that are taught in its intensive classes. In the full front-end programming class, students will do 60 to 80 hours of work per week through the three-month course. There’s no time for a student to be working a full-time job while taking the immersive course, she said. “It’s like going to a country and learning a language,” Dughaish said.

Students are learning the hands-on skills to become front-end engineers, including Javascript, or .net2 programming, skills that local companies, including those with representatives on her advisory board, tell her they need. This coordination with market demands helps The Iron Yard maintain a high job placement rate among graduates, Dughaish said.

Hurricane Matthew interrupted plans for a grand opening celebration at the bakery, and the event has been rescheduled for Oct. 21. It will feature a ribbon-cutting, a free day for people to try out co-working and to learn about The Iron Yard and a launch party beginning at 4 p.m.

In the short term, both SOCO and The Iron Yard want to build a steady population of clients on the Bull Street site. SOCO’s goal is to double its enrollment of members who pay to use its two facilities in the next 12 months, while The Iron Yard wants to fill its three-month classes with 16 students per session.

In the longer term, Hilton, Dughaish and the developers all want to see Bull Street development grow as a center for tech companies and entrepreneurship right in the middle of the city. The hope, Hilton said, is for the bakery to spur more use of both historic and new buildings for high-tech industry and education, part of the new Bull Street development as a cool place where talented entrepreneurs want to live, work and play.

“If you do that, believe me, the companies will come,” Hilton said.