Sophisticated City: Columbia is refining its college town image

December 1, 2008

By Michael Humphrey


American college towns have a feel to them, hard to define but noticeable each time you come upon one. They’re loaded with PhDs, students from all walks of life, political activists, sports fanatics, funky shops and restaurants with a wide variety of flavors.

On the other hand, each college town is distinct. Compare Boulder, Colo., to Chapel Hill, N.C. Or compare either to Cambridge, Mass. Each has its own character and most offer fabulous opportunities for residents and tourists.

Columbia is Missouri’s best example of a classic college town. And, like its sister cities of academia, it has figured out a way to create quality of life for full-time residents while temporarily hosting tens of thousands of scholars.

So what word best describes Columbia? How about “sophisticated?”

“Every town has hotels, has restaurants, has streets,” says Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You have to have something distinct to set yourself apart. I think we’re a surprise to people who don’t know our city. We are more than just a college town. It’s a little oasis, a very culturally oriented city.”

That’s not to say Columbia doesn’t have its college bars for late-night revelry. It does. And it’s not to say that it doesn’t have its share of sports-crazed people and places. Check that off too.

It’s just that tucked into that scene, set along the gently rolling hills of mid-Missouri, Columbia has succeeded in creating a niche for itself that is elegant and intelligent, all without getting too high-and-mighty.

That’s something meeting and event planners can capitalize on, because Columbia is more than willing to share its high life with visitors who wish to partake.

Meeting with the Arts

Start with the arts. Like many small and medium-sized cities, Columbia is finding new interest in local arts, both visual and performing. But unlike most cities its size (Columbia is nearing 90,000 permanent residents), the presence of a large university provides a prestigious arts footprint.

The Museum of Art & Archaeology at the University of Missouri, for instance, houses an impressive collection ranging from Dutch masters to Missouri’s greatest artists as well as ancient artifacts from Greece, Rome, Africa and China. And the museum hosts meetings for up to 100 people. MU also offers performance series featuring professional touring companies as well as companies sponsored by the university itself.

But you don’t have to go on campus to find a burgeoning arts community. Downtown Columbia is reaching a critical arts mass of its own, thanks to the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts (MTCA), which houses both visual and performing arts.

“Columbia is a thriving arts city,” says Diana Moxon, executive director of the Columbia Art League, housed in MTCA. “I think for its size, you won’t find many cities with the level of art patronage and talent that Columbia has.”

The theater itself is a work of art. Opened in 1928, the vaudeville/movie theater was designed in the mode of the Paris Opera House with generous touches of marble, plaster reliefs, stained glass and a massive Italian chandelier that’s best enjoyed from the balcony.

As is too often the story, the theater fell into disrepair, but the Missouri Symphony Society bought the building in 1988 and just this year finished a spectacular restoration. The theater houses several performing arts groups, including the symphony, the Missouri Contemporary Ballet and the Columbia Chorale. It also hosts many of Columbia’s prominent events, including the True/False Film Festival, Mozart-Higaday Music Trust Series and Blind Boone Ragtime Festival.

All of this activity hardly precludes opportunities for elegant meetings and events.

“We really run the gamut for meetings,” says Kanani May, MTCA director of public relations and marketing. “It’s possible to have meetings in our lobbies, in our theater, on the stage, and we even have an outdoor event space that is just beautiful.”

On the other side of the center for the arts is the Columbia Art League gallery. A spacious and light space, the gallery hosts revolving exhibits as well as classes and lectures. The Art League will soon celebrate 50 years, but Moxon says this is the first time they can think about hosting meetings and events.

“This is by far the nicest space we’ve ever had,” Moxon says. “It’s finally a place where people would want to have a function because it adds an element of elegance.”

Not only would the gallery provide the perfect spot for a mixer, but the classroom space could also be used for board meetings and small to medium-sized presentations.

Columbia is just beginning to foster studio space and an arts district, but several private galleries are ahead of the initiative with impressive sophistication. One example is the Perlow-Stevens Gallery, located in the heart of downtown. Co-owner Jennifer Perlow exhibits arts from across the country and beyond, finding emerging artists who blend classic ideas of aesthetics with contemporary approaches. It makes for gallery space that is, sophisticated, but also kind of funky. And the owners want groups to enjoy it.

“We offer events that are more interactive,” Perlow says. “It’s not just walking into a restaurant, sitting down, eating and then you leave. Here you experience something that draws you out and gets you talking to those around you.”

The galleries and artist studio spaces can collaborate for progressive functions, giving a wide-ranging experience of the arts in town.

Wine and Dine

Art is important, but no town staking its claim to sophistication can do without great restaurants.

“When you travel, you eat,” says Steiner. “Not just because you’re hungry, but it’s wonderful to try new restaurants. That’s a place where we shine.”

And it might be enough that Columbia is well stocked with ethnic and local restaurants. Or that Esquire Magazine recently named Flatbranch Pub and Brewing one of the best bars in the country. Or that Shakespeare’s Pizza might be the best and coolest pizza joint in the state. That certainly bodes well for Columbia’s college town image.

But it takes fine dining restaurants to reach the next level and Columbia has that too. CC’s City Broiler offers steaks and seafood, The Wine Cellar & Bistro provides intimate space and eclectic menus with more than 1,000 wines and, Jack’s Gourmet Restaurant bills itself as “Mafia chic.”

But perhaps the best experience of all – for tourists as well as groups – takes a quick drive to Les Bourgeois Vineyards and Bistro in Rocheport.

“Groups are an important part of our total volume,” says Curtis Bourgeois Jr., part of the second generation of the family business. “That’s everything from meetings to weddings to parties.”

Set atop a bluff that overlooks the Missouri River, the Bistro offers seasonal menus featuring local produce and imported delicacies, all prepared to match the vineyard’s wide range of wines. A room for 25 rests at the top of the bistro, offering even more spectacular views. A ground-floor event space is perfect for groups up to 100.

And events don’t have to end there. The vineyards also can be enjoyed at the original A-frame wine garden, which can be tented or enjoyed al fresco for a casual event. Be sure to tour the production facility, just off I-70, where for most of the year some part of the winemaking process can be viewed in action.

“Of course there are better times than others to do tours,” says winemaker Jacob Holman. “But whenever a group comes, they are going to learn and enjoy a lot of different aspects of winemaking. We don’t put them behind a glass wall and have an intern talk to them. We let them experience the work right here.”

A Touch of Pride

Add in the fact that Columbia offers easy access to the Katy Trail and the beautiful Rock Bridge State Park, as well as a growing system of bike and walking trails through the city. There are new initiatives for public spaces and art, and Columbia is well on its way to the high life.

For planners, Columbia’s position right in the middle of the state, on the I-70 corridor, means drawing attendees is nearly a given.

“We see a 10 to 15 percent increase in attendees when Columbia is chosen,” Steiner says. “It is simply the most centrally located and accessible city in the state.”

People in Columbia know they have something special, both lifelong residents and those who have settled from elsewhere.

“I have lived all over the world, including four continents,” says Moxon. “I am not exaggerating when I say Columbia is the best city I’ve ever lived in. The quality of life here is amazing.”

But don’t expect the city to rest on its laurels just yet.

“We are working on destination development,” Steiner says. “I would say that is my biggest job right now. We want to continue to create attractions that draw people to our city.”

Hotel Renaissance

None of this really matters to meeting planners without good hotel space. And that aspect of Columbia is developing as well.

“This is a city that is growing,” says Julie Sizemore, director of sales for the just-opened Hampton Inn & Suites Columbia. “The demand for high quality hospitality and meeting space is growing with it.”

Here are three examples:

• The recently renovated Holiday Inn Select and Expo Center can host up to 3,000 people and is situated right on I-70.

• Stoney Creek Inn, opened in 2003, includes the Frontier Conference Center, which showcases 10 meeting rooms and offers approximately 11,000 sq. ft. of meeting space for up to 700 guests.

• The brand new Hampton Inn & Suites Columbia, located right next Mizzou’s sports complex, offers meeting space that ranges from 4,692 sq. ft. for large groups to intimate spaces of 360 sq. ft. for board meetings.

“What you’ll find at all of our hotels is easy access to the city,” Steiner says. “We have city amenities without the hassles. We don’t have a rush hour here, we have a rush minute.”  MM&E

(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)

For more information, contact:

Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau

(800) 652-0987

The Museum of Art & Archaeology

(573) 882-3591

Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts

(573) 875-0600

Columbia Art League gallery

(573) 443-8838

Perlow-Stevens Gallery Columbia

(573) 442-4831

Les Bourgeois Vineyards and Bistro

(573) 698-2300

Hampton Inn & Suites Columbia at the University of Missouri

(573) 214-2222



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