Columbia's historic properties are on their last legs

Friday, October 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Three of Columbia’s oldest and best-known buildings have been in the news lately. One of the stories seems to have a much better chance of a happy ending than the others. Of course, as with all good stories, the tales of these three are still full of uncertainty. The final chapters are yet to be written, though they have been amply foreshadowed.

I’m referring, as you’ve probably guessed, to the Tiger Hotel on Eighth Street, the Heibel-March building at the corner of Range Line Street and Wilkes Boulevard, and the old federal building on Cherry Street, now home to the YouZeum.

The Tiger Hotel may be on its way to roaring again, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of John Ott and a healthy infusion of our tax money. In addition to those two essential elements, what the hotel has going for it is location and the absence of any visible competitor for its intended new incarnation as our first and only “boutique” hotel.

(Don’t ask me to explain just what a boutique hotel is, other than small and expensive. My guess is that the definition is capable of a fair amount of fudging, and I doubt we’ll be reminded overmuch of New York or San Francisco. But a top-quality downtown hotel has certainly been missing from Columbia’s inventory since ... well, since forever, or at least since the glory days of the original Tiger Hotel.)

If all goes well – which, as the history of The Tiger Hotel demonstrates, isn’t necessarily guaranteed – we’ll have our boutique hotel in the heart of our District in another two years. And 20 years or so after that, we’ll start recapturing for the schools and other tax-supported entities the revenue that soon will be diverted to Mr. Ott and his investors.

The prospects don’t look so bright for the tourist attraction that isn’t, located just around the corner and down a couple of blocks from the hotel. I was one of the long line of skeptics who doubted whether the visionaries behind the YouZeum would ever find the money needed to renovate an office building into an interactive health education center.

Then, quick as always to leap onto a passing bandwagon, I was the very first admission-paying adult customer when all that skepticism vanished in the low-wattage glare of the opening festivities. My May 4, 2008 column was an enthusiastic review. I enjoyed everything from the 3-D movie that taught me I have 206 bones to the realistic emergency room to the bookstore, where I resisted the temptation to buy a copy of “Everyone Poops.”

Probably, I should have paid more attention to the labels affixed to many vertical surfaces that offered “naming opportunities.” The one that caught my eye that day was the elevator, available for a mere $25,000.

Like most adult visitors, I haven’t seen any need to return to the YouZeum. I’m guessing that the elevator remains unnamed. Short on money and short on paying customers, the few remaining staffers are reducing hours, a step that seldom leads to new success. This week, the city’s most influential public voice, that of Henry J. Waters III, suggested that it’s time to pull the plug.

It looks like time to pull the plug on the Heibel-March building too, except that the electricity has surely been disconnected long ago. One of Columbia’s “Most Notable Properties,” this has been a structure in search of a function for years. The last chance apparently evaporated when the most recent hopeful claimant, First Chance for Children, decided the price of renovation was too steep and the chances of another disappointment too great.

The city officials who’ve wanted to tear it down and put in a park-let are going to get their wish. That will be an upgrade over a derelict shell of a building.

So what separates success from failure? A plausible purpose, for one. A hefty subsidy from taxpayers certainly helps. And don’t discount the three factors real estate people always cite: location, location and location.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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