Many Lawrence residents would applaud Dan Ranjbar’s goal of bringing more retail business to Massachusetts Street.
It remains to be seen, however, to what point Ranjbar will stand on principle when it starts to affect his bottom line.
Ranjbar owns the building that formerly housed Arensberg’s Shoes. It is a great, Art Deco-style building right in the heart of downtown. Although the storefront has been vacant for several months, the only business that has expressed an interest in the space as it’s currently configured is a restaurant.
That’s not what Ranjbar is looking for. He, like many other Lawrence residents, including many downtown business people, think there are enough restaurants in that area. What Ranjbar told the Journal-World he wants is “retail, boutique or spa type businesses.”
To that end, he plans to invest significant money to split the building so it can accommodate two retail businesses on the ground floor and more in the basement, in addition to two office spaces on the second floor. But no restaurants.
“We have enough places to eat,” he said. “We need more places to shop. I will sit on it as long as I can to get that.”
How long will that be? Ranjbar, who is a local orthodontist, may have more financial flexibility than some downtown property owners, but especially after investing more money to alter and improve the former Arensberg space, how long can he wait to see some return on his investment?
One of the common complaints voiced by business people leaving downtown is that rents are so high that they make it difficult for a business to be profitable. Will Ranjbar’s principles extend to offering the space in his building at a lower rental rate to a retail or spa business? That’s a lot to ask of a business person.
Another issue is what it costs — in terms of both time and money — for a building owner or prospective business to meet the city’s planning requirements for remodeling done at a business site. This is of particular concern to Lawrence Chamber of Commerce representatives who have been told many discouraging stories.
Ranjbar describes his plans for the building as “stunning,” a space that will rival the ambiance of Teller’s, a restaurant in a building of which he is part owner. He’s already getting some interest from potential retail tenants, he said, but he wants “to feel confident that the person I put in there will stay afloat.”
That, of course, is the challenge, to find the right kind of business to make a go of it in downtown. It probably won’t be a big box store. It might be a national chain, although Lawrence’s market is barely big enough to attract such chains. It might be a retail outlet that offers special products not readily available elsewhere, perhaps with an active online retail operation to help support its bottom line.
The future of downtown clearly is uncertain, but we wish Ranjbar well in his new project. Downtown Lawrence has lost some longtime stalwart retailers in recent months, and it could use some new blood.