Saturday, January 11, 2003

Cities try offbeat retail shops downtown


By Paul Singer
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - For Ohio cities that have seen decades of dwindling downtown retail, the solution may be in changing the definition of downtown shopping.

Across the state, developers and city officials are turning attention away from major retailers and department stores and experimenting with smaller shops selling unique items that echo the history of the city around them.

In downtown Cleveland this week, developer Werner Minshall announced his $30 million purchase of the Galleria, a glass-enclosed shopping mall that has been losing major tenants for years.

In the past two years, the mall has lost Eddie Bauer, Williams-Sonoma, The Limited, Express and Victoria's Secret.

Mr. Minshall said he is hoping to attract a different kind of business to the mall.

"We want to bring unique retail, local merchants, like the Hungarian Heritage Society gift shop," he said. "We want to look to this community to populate this mall."

John Ferchill, chairman of The Ferchill Group, announced a plan in December to build a new $40 million entertainment/shopping complex in downtown Akron, near the site of the new Akron Aeros downtown baseball field.

Mr. Ferchill said he has no interest in attracting traditional shopping mall tenants.

"Putting a Gap store where you can drive to five other suburban malls and get it doesn't work," he said.

Jim Phelps, Akron's deputy mayor for economic development, said the city is building for a young generation that has tired of the sameness of suburban shopping malls.

"The two generations that we lost to the malls, who became mall lovers, their children are saying, `Wow, downtown can do something for me.'"

The key, Mr. Phelps said, is "it is all very specialized. You are not going to find things that you can find everywhere else."

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a consumer research firm in Charleston, S.C., said the new urban retail attracts the same young people who are moving into loft apartments and converted warehouses downtown in cities across the county.

"These are people who look at retail very differently than their parents did," Mr. Beemer said.

In Columbus, vacant retail space is being converted into galleries, offices and nightclubs.

A block of former stores was converted last year into Long Street Live, six themed clubs under one roof - with lines around the block on Friday nights.

A bar and stools have been installed in the former Madison's department store, vacant since the early 1990s, as part of its conversion into a jazz club. Developers are buying nearby buildings with the hope of turning them into apartments or condominiums.

Toledo's downtown is still trying to get over the collapse of a downtown mall that closed 12 years ago. Since then, downtown retailers have struggled to keep afloat.

The key to the success of downtown projects is developing residential districts that will support the shops, experts say.

"People don't want to go downtown unless they have some overriding reason to do so," said John Mahaney, president of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants. "If you cannot bring people back downtown to live there - not in squalor but in affordable, acceptable housing - you are in for a world of hurt."

Mr. Minshall said he has high hopes for the Galleria project because Cleveland has developed several thousand residential units downtown and is spending more than $200 million in state and federal money to rehab a deteriorated commercial strip downtown called the Euclid Avenue Corridor.

But the challenge is clear. Just before his press conference Monday, water dripped from a leak in the atrium ceiling into two yellow buckets set up 10 feet behind the podium.

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