During the past year, Lawrence's downtown has seen an ebb and flow among its more than 300 assorted retail stores, services and offices.
The vacancy rate is up 13 empty storefronts now on Massachusetts compared to nine a year ago, according to a recent Journal-World survey.
But it's difficult to interpret how much of that is due to the economy and how much to competition from the Lawrence Riverfront Plaza, according to interviews with several downtown shopkeepers.
The J-W survey of the downtown's street level shops indicated that the eclectic mix of retail and offices bordered by Sixth, Vermont, 11th and New Hampshire streets has seen several changes since the mall opened its doors April 7, 1990.
Since that time 18 new businesses moved into the downtown, while 17 closed up. Seven others moved from the downtown and two businesses changed hands. Six moved north within the downtown area, but just as many moved south.
One store, the Jewelry Source, formerly at 1023 Mass., became one of the first tenants of the new mall. Only one downtown store moved to the new factory outlet mall since it opened: Sports Unlimited, formerly at 1012 Mass.
HOWEVER, TWO other downtown businesses set up second stores in the new mall, Ye Olde Sugarosity Shoppe, 15 W. Ninth, and Marks Jewelers, 817 Mass.
Here is a breakdown of the vacancies along Massachusetts Street now as compared to a year ago: 600 block, one vacancy now, two a year ago; 700 block, one now, two last year; 800 block, two now, zero last year; 900 block, two now, zero last year; 1000 block, five now, two last year; and 1100 block, two now, three last year.
The most significant changes in the past year were on the west side of the 700 block of Massachusetts Street. Four businesses closed, one new business opened, a restaurant changed hands and four other downtown businesses relocated into the block.
Andy Ramirez, president of the Downtown Lawrence organization, which has 363 business members, said changes in the 700 block are mostly caused by the increase in foot traffic from the factory outlet mall.
"THE CENTER of retail activity has historically been at Ninth and Massachusetts," Ramirez said. "That was the bullseye. I believe that center of activity has shifted north to the center of Seventh and Massachusetts Street."
Some downtown merchants disagree with Ramirez. But the DL president argues that the foot traffic has shifted because those who go to the mall either park in the mall parking lot or as close to it as possible in the 600 and 700 blocks of Massachusetts.
"It's sometimes difficult to find a parking space in the rest of the downtown," Ramirez said.
Jim Connelly, co-owner of Silver Works and More, 715 Mass., said he's noticed an increase in business on the weekdays, but a decrease on Saturdays, with more browsers than buyers.
Connelly said part of the draw to the 700 block is the restaurants in the block the Paradise Cafe, Buffalo Bob's Smokehouse, the American Bistro, Mario's along with the Free State Brewing Co. in the 600 block. Also, the Alley Cat, 717 Mass., which sells records and tapes, moved in recently, bringing in younger customers, Connelly said.
MARY LOU Wright, co-owner, of The Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh, said that each of the businesses in the Seventh and Massachusetts area help bring in certain customers.
"Some people say they now have more of an excuse to go to The Raven and then go to the outlet mall," she said. "I'm so glad we're where we are. Each business enhances each other business."
Wright said a lot of credit for the area also has to go to David Millstein and Charles Oldfather, who renovated the historic Liberty Hall building at Seventh and Massachusets, re-opening it in 1986.
Ramirez said the factory outlet mall has brought more competition to certain downtown businesses. Shoe stores, clothing stores and bookstores have had to adjust the type of inventory they carry so they won't offer the same merchandise that can be found at the factory outlet center, he said.
Jack Arensberg, president of Arensberg Shoes, 825 Mass., said he could feel the competition at first. But then he began more advertising and promotion, and business improved.
"IT'S BROUGHT in a lot of people to the downtown and we've benefited from that," he said.
George Paley, co-owner of Natural Way, 820 Mass., said his clothing and jewelry store has seen much traffic from mall customers.
"In our case, we're not in a head-on-head competition with the stores in the mall, so I feel the effect here is very positive," he said.
But Paley didn't agree with Ramirez that the foot traffic has shifted the center of the downtown's activity to the north. Paley said the availability of parking in the city lots in the 800 and 900 blocks has helped those areas.
Paley said another business had an impact on bringing traffic downtown during the last year the Antique Mall, 830 Mass., which moved into a space formerly occupied by J.C. Penney.
Owner Dave Billings said he thought the antique mall, which houses 60 antique dealers, has helped to centralize the retail business in Lawrence and has brought many people Lawrence to shop who would not otherwise shop in the city.
"PEOPLE ARE hearing about the riverfront mall or the antique mall and stopping in Lawrence and are having lunch or visiting other stores while they are in town," he said.
"I don't think that Seventh and Massachusetts will ever be as strong as Ninth and Mass just because of Ninth Street," Billings said. "But I do see that the 700 block is getting stronger all the time because of the Riverfront Plaza. But I think Ninth and Massachusetts will always be the strongest corner in terms of traffic count, both pedestrian and vehicular."
Joe Flannery, president of Weaver's Department Store, 901 Mass., also thinks Ninth and Massachusetts is still the hub of downtown.
However, Flannery said he was glad to see the increase in the 700 block's foot traffic.
"I'm glad to see the vacancies filled. The more businesses there are, the more varied reasons there are for people to shop downtown," he said.
However, Flannery said the most improved area in the downtown has been the 600 block, noting the improvements at Journal-World building, Liberty Hall and the Free State Brewing Co.
"IT WAS always kind of the stepchild of the downtown block for many years. Now its a shining example of refurbishment," he said.
Flannery said he couldn't tell if his business has felt any competition from the mall.
"There's not that much an overlap between ourselves and what they carry," Flannery said. "They have women's clothing and shoes. But as far as identical merchandise, we offer different things to different people."
Ramirez said it's evident that the 1000 block of Massachusetts has become more quiet for retail trade in the last year. That's one reason that Sports Unlimited moved from that area to the mall, he said.
However, Carol Beeson, co-owner of Silver Hawk Leather, 1021 Mass., said her custom leather product business hasn't really noticed much of a change in foot traffic in the block in the past four years.
"We just never have had a lot of foot traffic. But it serves our purpose. Since the mall has opened it hasn't hurt our business," she said.
RAMIREZ said Massachusetts' 1100 block, which is losing a longtime business, General Appliance, probably will evolve into a block for professional offices and business-related services.
Jan Pence, owner of The Flower Shoppe, 1101 Mass., said shop owners on the block "always feel like we're kind of the downtown stepchildren." Pence said whenever there are downtown functions, people start walking through the 1000 block, which has little retail, and often turn back before they reach the 1100 block.
"The Tin Pan Alley, (a restaurant at 1105 Mass.) generates a lot of the traffic around here, so that's good for us," she said. She said she also gets a lot of customers from the Douglas County Courthouse, 11th and Massachusetts.
But Pence said foot traffic hasn't increased since the mall opened.
"I can't see that it's done anything for me," she said. "I think we're too far removed from one another."
Ramirez said the factory outlet mall will have an impact on business activity along New Hampshire Street, which he said is "a diamond in the rough."
"IF I WERE TO pass a magic wand, I would start working on New Hampshire Street," he said. "With a little bit of capital improvements, New Hampshire Street could be every bit as good as Massachusetts Street."
Ramirez suggested that plantings could help the streetscape. And he said angled parking along the street would provide 300 more spaces although it would make New Hampshire two lanes instead of four lanes.
"We need to start focusing our energies on New Hampshire," he said. "New Hampshire Street may very well become an entertainment street. In order for it to be more successful, it has to be more of an area safe for pedestrian traffic than as a way to get around downtown."