Independent retailers wanted for Mile on High development

The core of Columbus’s central business district is currently home to numerous surface parking lots and vacant storefronts. However, the city is actively working to change that through the Mile on High initiative.

Mayor Michael Coleman unveiled the initiative −designed to encourage local, independent businesses to set up shop in the section of downtown bounded by Spring Street to the north, Mound Street to the south, Front street to the west, and Fourth Street to the east− in his 2008 State of the City address. A complementary incentive package was assembled by City Council in late 2009 and Kacey Brankamp began serving as a full-time downtown retail recruiter the following year.

“Projects like the Scioto Mile and Columbus Commons are creating an energy and excitement in the downtown community,” says Boyce Safford, director of development for the city of Columbus, adding that the 100,000 employees, 6,100 residents, and 250,000 overnight hotel guests in the area provide retailers with quite the captive audience.

Brankamp echoed that sentiment, noting that the overlapping consumer markets downtown create a large population of people who don’t have many places to shop for goods and services.

“It’s an untapped market,” she continues. “Over the past 10 years, downtown has seen $2 billion of public and private investment in the form of parks, new residential housing, infrastructure, rehabilitations of underutilized property, and more. We are starting to see and feel the impact of those investments. It’s a prime time for retail development.”

Fortunately for retailers, a wide variety of spaces is available.

“Based on research we conducted in January 2011, there are currently between 80 and 90 available spaces out of about 170 first-floor spaces,” Brankamp says. “The smallest space is about 300 square feet and is located in the Fifth Third Building on State Street. One of the largest spaces is the beautiful bank building at the corner of Town and High streets across from the Columbus Commons. It’s over 20,000 square feet. Average available space ranges from 2,000 to 4,000 square feet.”

There are several alleys that Brankamp thinks could be “fabulous little retail corridors,” including Pearl Alley, Lynn Alley, and Wall Alley.

Photo of existing alley on Wall Street (left) and rendering of potential development (right) courtesy of Neighborhood Design Center.

“Take a walk down Wall Street between Town Street and Rich Street and see what you think!” she adds. “Gay Street is another point of interest because it has the most vibrant environment right now. There is a lot of positive momentum there. I also think South High Street by the [Franklin County] Courthouse and Main Street between 3rd and 4th [streets] are special because of the preserved historical integrity of the buildings. Those blocks present a charming downtown atmosphere. A common element of these areas is they lend themselves to smaller retail spaces in a pedestrian-friendly environment, which can be clustered to form a continuous stretch of retail shops.”

Incentives for locating within the Mile on High district include facade improvement grants (up to $5,000 for individual businesses, which must match the funds one-to-one) as well as tax abatements on residential and commercial properties, and business loans for startup and expansion, real estate acquisition, and working capital.

Chad McCoury, co-owner of the J. Gumbo’s located at 31 E. Gay St., received a $5,000 facade improvement grant this spring. The business’s out of pocket expense came to $6,500 since the total cost of the renovation was $11,500.

“The city’s department who handles this grant funding and administration were great to work with during this process, and they were very expedient in approving the project and in the disbursement of the matching grant funds,” McCoury says. The grant helped pay for new awnings, a blade sign, and the associated permit fees and design costs.

“We’ve received great feedback about the improvements,” he says. “Many new customers think we’ve just opened, although we’ve been open nearly two years now. It has definitely increased traffic and visibility. Additionally, our neighbors and customers love the aesthetic improvement that it has given to the corner of Gay Street and Pearl Alley. I’ve heard from several local merchants who’ve said that the improvements have inspired them to consider doing improvements to their space, which is really exciting! It really complements the wrap-around patio improvements we made last year. We have seen a significant increase in patio diners.”

Safford says the city’s focus on independent and upstart businesses within the Mile on High is rooted in a phenomenon officials have noticed in Columbus’s thriving urban neighborhoods, like the Short North: organic development tends to have staying power.

“We’ve seen a flight of national chain retail from downtown and, most likely, they won’t come back in the near future,” Brankamp explains. “Chain retail trends toward sites in demonstrated markets where other chain retail exists. It’s a risk-adverse, pack mentality. The exception to this is a prominent developer who has the clout to attract and assemble such tenants.

“Independent business owners and startup entrepreneurs tend to be more willing to take risks in unproven markets like downtown. They’re also generally more nimble with expansion plans. I find many of the retailers I work with have a connection to downtown and want to be a part of its revival. They also recognize, despite a lack of strong retail activity, there is still a huge demand for retail services.”

To learn more about Mile on High retail opportunities, contact Kacey Brankamp by email at [email protected] or by phone at 614-645-5095.