Monday, September 21, 2009

Tour de Fronts shows off available OTR spaces

A week ago Sunday, during the fifth anniversary of Second Sunday on Main, more than a dozen commercial spaces were opened for exploration.

Over 30 storefronts are available along Main, E 13th and E 14th streets, between 600 square feet and 13,000 square feet and renting for between $6 and $15 per square foot.

Arranged by the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce Business Retention and Attraction Committee, the event was organized to highlight the Business First Grant program, which has five major objectives:
  • To leverage the investment of the OTR Chamber, 3CDC and the City of Cincinnati with private investors and partners
  • To reduce storefront turnover and stabilize the business district, thereby increasing foot traffic, safety and commerce
  • To support capital improvements in unused and underutilized storefronts
  • To solicit a diverse group of businesses that complement and strengthen the neighborhood
  • To provide an environment for individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses to thrive, strengthening the neighborhood economy and providing employment opportunities for local residents

Program requires partnership

Brian Tiffany, president of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, says that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-funded grants can only be used for fitting out the spaces, not for construction.

Business owner equity is required for building improvements, he says, but the money can also be used as a quarterly rental subsidy if the proprietor signs a three-year lease.

"This is a unique neighborhood, and that is our strength," says Tiffany. "You will encounter some things that I'm sure you will not encounter in other neighborhoods."

But, in addition to helping prospective entrepreneurs understand the neighborhood, the Chamber will also assist with business plans and mentoring, he says.

"We have an amazing amount of architecture, we're the center of the universe in Cincinnati in terms of arts and culture," Tiffany says. "It's a walkable urbanity. You're literally minutes from Downtown. And there's amazing growth taking place on the residential side, which are your future customers."

A successful example

Dan Korman opened Park + Vine in June 2007, working with Tiffany and other helpful people within the Gateway Quarter.

"I was very determined to open a store in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood where I had lived many years prior to that," Korman says.

The Business First Grant was the main reason why Korman decided to start his first business in the neighborhood.

Between August 2008 and August 2009, Korman's sales have grown by 25 percent, and he's quickly outgrowing his space.

"That's outstanding, considering the economy, and a lot of other factors, as well," he says.

Korman loves it in Over-the-Rhine, although he had other choices.

"We probably could have opened the store in some other neighborhoods," he says. "It seems like our store is getting a higher profile because we're in Over-the-Rhine, instead of just fitting in to another traditional business district. And that's definitely worked to our advantage."

Vomit on the doorsteps

The few people who lived above the bars on Main Street didn't enjoy the loud bars, chaos on the streets, or the vomit on their doorsteps.

So the new strategy is a conscious effort to fill the upstairs with residents first, and then to backfill with neighborhood services.

That strategy used to be the other way around, which resulted in a plethora of short-lived clubs and no neighborhood momentum.

Kathleen Norris of Brandt Retail Group, who has been heavily involved in tenanting most of the Gateway Quarter commercial spaces, says that "destination" retail is a strategy to fill the gap between the numerous residential rehabilitation projects and a true neighborhood.

"They will come here because there's something that makes a tremendous experience, and we need to have all of our storefronts focused on that objective because we only have so many storefronts, and they need to support each other," Norris says.

Main Street will be a major destination within the next five years, she says.

"In order to support the merchants, we had to create a destination retail district," Norris says. "Nobody will come from Hyde Park to Over-the-Rhine because there's a dry cleaner. They will come because there's an art gallery. They will come because there's a boutique. They will come because there's something here that makes this a tremendous experience, and we need all of our storefronts focused on that objective because we only have so many storefronts, and they have to support each other."

But Norris is not set in her ways, and everyone who has ever met her knows that she's receptive to ideas.

"If you go to a restaurant you like, send me an e-mail," she says. "If you see a shop you like -- here or someplace else -- tell me about it. If you're in a neighborhood place that's really cool, tell me about it, because that's how we're doing it. We're trying to look at what the best practices and the best practitioners are."

If you attended this year's Tour de Fronts, the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce would like for you to fill out this short survey on how the event can be improved in the future.