What types of shops do you want in downtown? As vacancy rate climbs, downtown group wants to know
photo by: Chad Lawhorn
Get out your wish list for downtown Lawrence. As the city’s main business district posts a higher-than-normal vacancy rate, downtown leaders want to know what types of stores or businesses you think downtown Lawrence needs most.
Downtown Lawrence Inc. is in the early stages of a project aimed at gathering data about wants and needs in downtown, with the hope it will be able to use the information to create a successful campaign to recruit new businesses to downtown.
The nonprofit business organization is starting by asking its members and other business owners about what types of shops are most lacking in downtown. But the group expects to create a social media campaign in early October that will query the general public.
The organization is seeking something more than a knee-jerk reaction.
“We’re not asking people to tell us just what they want to see or what they think would be fun downtown,” said Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc. “What I really want to hear is what would they support with their dollars.”
While the group hasn’t officially launched its outreach effort to the general public, Zogry said if people have a comment they particularly want to make right away, they can do so on the “contact us” section of the downtownlawrence.com website.
Zogry said the number of vacancies in downtown is a factor that is driving the new outreach effort. By my count on Friday, Massachusetts Street has 16 vacant storefronts, although that number may not be quite as bad as it sounds. I counted any ground-floor space that didn’t currently have an operating business in it. That includes several spaces that soon will have a business. Black Stag Brewery, for instance, is well on its way to opening, but its space in the 600 block of Massachusetts gets counted because it is not yet open.
My experience has been that about every five years, downtown goes through a period where vacancy rates are higher than normal. Downtown is certainly in one right now. Opinions probably vary on whether this downturn is worse than in past years. I’m not sure we have hit any new highs in terms of the number of vacant storefronts on Mass., but there have been some high-profile ones.
Losing The Buckle left a big space. Losing Ernst & Son Hardware left downtown with one less iconic retailer. The Allen Press property continues its decade-long emptiness on one end of downtown, and now the former Journal-World printing plant is another large amount of empty space on the other end.
Not counted in the 16 vacancies I tallied is the former Borders bookstore on New Hampshire Street. (I only counted on Massachusetts.) A Price Chopper grocery store wants to locate on the property, but delays in getting an incentive deal are a sign of how development has perhaps become a bit more difficult.
Instead of trying to figure out how to fill all those spaces, Downtown Lawrence Inc. wants to figure out what may be in most demand. Zogry said her conversations with downtown business owners so far have pointed to a grocery store, a pharmacy, more clothing and shoes for kids and additional men’s clothing options, among others.
Business owners also continue to keep an eye on the growing number of restaurants that are locating in downtown.
“We do want to make sure we have a good mix and not lean too far in any one direction,” Zogry said.
Once Downtown Lawrence Inc. gets the data, Zogry said the organization then will see what it can do to aid in recruitment of businesses. She said it is unclear whether the city may need to offer some incentives to lure certain types of businesses to downtown. She expects the issue of incentives will be a topic as part of the downtown master plan process that the city is beginning.
As we have reported, the consultant for that study has been hired. The city is now working on establishing the steering committee for the process. That steering committee is proposed to include representatives from the East Lawrence, Old West Lawrence, Pinckney and North Lawrence Neighborhood Associations; the city’s convention and visitors bureau; Downtown Lawrence Inc.; the Lawrence chamber of commerce; the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission; the Historic Resources Commission; an architect appointed by the mayor; a developer appointed by the mayor; a Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioner; a downtown business owner or tenant appointed by the mayor; a downtown resident appointed by the mayor; a downtown property owner appointed by the mayor; a member of the Affordable Housing Advisory Board; and an at-large community member appointed by the mayor.
In addition to the incentive issue, Zogry said she expected the downtown plan to also address the key topics of parking and safety, which she said are both cited as issues that cause some Lawrence residents to limit their visits to downtown.
In other news and notes from around downtown:
• One building that is vacant now but has signs of new life is the space at 937 Massachusetts, which used to house Extra Virgin, the olive oil and balsamic vinegar place. A sign in the window touts a new Hawaiian-style eatery. It is called Poke Point, which serves poke bowls, which normally involve rice, vegetables and raw or marinated fish. In case you are wondering, it does seem like Lawrence is going through a bit of a Hawaiian trend. Ramen Bowls has long been serving up that type of fare, but has become more visible by moving to Massachusetts Street, and Hawaiian Brothers Island Grill has opened on 23rd Street. Now, Poke Point. I’ll look to get some more info on that restaurant and pass it along.