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Adding restaurants and retail downtown requires more than just a wish

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


For people who would like to see downtown Fort Wayne transformed into a vibrant, buzzing place to live, work, and play, a favorite parlor game — or bar stool game, to be more accurate — is “wouldn’t it be nice if…” Or “wouldn’t it be cool if…” Or “why doesn’t someone get off their lazy butts and…”

Whatever you want to call it, you can probably guess how it goes. “Wouldn’t it be nice if (business X) opened a store downtown?” “Why doesn’t (business Y) set up shop down here?” “The other weekend I was in (downtown of nearby city) and saw they had a (restaurant/business) there. Why don’t we get one of those?”

The object of desire doesn’t have to be a nationally recognized name; it can be another branch of an already established local business, or even a generic store or restaurant, like “an ice cream store” or “a quilt store” or whatever.

But what it comes down to is this — why doesn’t some enthusiastic entrepreneur take it upon his or herself to open up shop downtown? After all, it’s a great opportunity.

Or is it? Despite the attention many people and organizations have given to downtown over the past several years, and despite the nice-lookin’ new ballpark and a handful of restaurants that seem to be making a go of it, opening a business in downtown Fort Wayne is still a tough proposition, even for someone who is already established and knows what they’re doing.

Take Tom Casaburo, for example. The co-founder and owner of the uber-popular chain of “Casa” restaurants in town (there are five locations), Casaburo says he has been approached “numerous” times, including quite recently, about opening up another location downtown. Despite some very generous deals, Casaburo, who opened the first Casa restaurant in 1977 on Coldwater road, is not really exploring the possibility. “My reluctance to downtown has always been ‘will you have anyone for dinner?’” he says. “Lunch is kind of a no-brainer, because you have a built-in clientele. They’re already there. But then they need to come back for dinner.”

“I would say from the first time we were asked about coming downtown, there’s been a dramatic change,” he continues. “Club Soda has had great success. Hall’s is still doing well. I understand JK O’Donnell’s is doing well… people are starting to come back downtown, but I just don’t know how many are, is what I’m saying. We can’t survive on just a lunch business. We absolutely need dinner.”

It’s an issue that comes up often in downtown development — in order for a store or a restaurant to make it, there needs to be relatively consistent density downtown. The streets can’t be deserted after 5. (Andrew Thomas of Pint & Slice says as much in the Calhoun Street article in this issue).

One solution is the “crazy entrepreneurs” — people with the financing and the passion to invest in projects that traditional developers feel is too big of a risk. Scott Glaze, the president of Fort Wayne Metals, founded J.K. O’Donnell’s with his wife Melissa (Dennis and Jeremy Rohrs and Kim Jacobs are also partners). He told Fort Wayne Reader in 2007 that he realized opening a restaurant downtown was going to be tough-going at first, but that he wanted to stick it out partially in the hopes that other business owners would be encouraged by “crazy entrepreneurs” like him. “The investment I’ve put in to J.K. O’Donnell’s is pretty extensive and I hope it’ll be a success,” Glaze said in 2007. “But regardless, it’s going to be there, and I hope it’ll be a staple of that neighborhood, and I hope there will be something that pops up right next to it, and another one across the street. I would love to see that atmosphere grow in Fort Wayne. It may take years, but it’s worth it, and I’d like to help it grow.”

Mike Harris, co-owner of Toscani’s on Wayne Street across from J.K. O’Donnell’s, echoed Glaze’s comments. “I’d like to see another three or four restaurants come on this street,” he said. “There’s room for everybody.”

But business owners who have the patience and/or resources to invest in growing the downtown market are few and far between (and it’s their money, after all). And that’s just the restaurant business, a risky and expensive proposition anyway (Casaburo estimates that for him to set up in a space that was already configured for a restaurant’s needs might cost between $200 – $250 thousand. To completely renovate a “bare bones” space might cost near a million). When talk turns to other kinds of retail businesses — like the kind of business that might encourage people to not only stay downtown but live there — the costs and logistics can be head-spinning, and often far beyond the resources of even the most civic-minded independent entrepreneur.

And what kind of business might actually encourage people to live downtown, or at least near by?

How about a supermarket?

“A supermarket is very, very desirable,” says Richard Davis of the Downtown Improvement District. He cites the Marsh supermarkets in Indianapolis, in particular a Marsh store on Massachusettes Avenue. “That kind of store has an urban profile and is used to opening with, say, less parking than you would expect and is used to some walk-in traffic. That’s the kind of store you really want to have. It might be worth having a discussion and ask what they’re looking for.”

Of course, Marsh already tried opening a store in Fort Wayne in 2004. It closed very quickly, and the space over on Maplecrest is still empty. Davis says they may have tried to target the Kroger profile, whereas the location in downtown Indy appears to be targeting something different. “It’s all about trying to find the store that fits the niche. It may not be the upscale market you might think.”

One national name that Davis hears often is Trader Joe’s, a specialty grocery store with more than 300 stores in the U.S. Some of its stores operate in an urban market, and its environmentally-friendly products and gourmet and specialty stock seem to make it a nice fit for a downtown setting.

Unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen here in Fort Wayne. “Everyone says ‘wow, it would be great to have a Trader Joe’s downtown’,” Davis explains. “But the problem is, Trader Joe’s has a very strict set of criteria that brings them into a place. They know their demographic from start to finish, they know population and how it clusters, they can look at an area and tell you in minutes whether or not you’re a candidate for their store, and pretty well target their next round of openings.”

The same can be said for a lot of large, national chains. Sharon Feasel of the City of Fort Wayne’s Redevelopment Commission works with the D.I.D. on downtown development issues, and hears some of the same things. Often, the public’s “wish list” doesn’t match the retailer’s criteria. “When you’re around this kind of thing all the time — and I subscribe to a lot of different retail newsletters and things like that — it’s a lot different from what people think,” she says. “People tend to say, for example, ‘I want a Trader Joe’s, and I’m just going to call them and they’re going to come.’ But most of the large retailers really don’t want you to call them. They want you to call their real estate arm. And a lot of them will tell you, straight up, on their web site, ‘we need 70 thousand cars a day, we need x number of parking spaces, our minimum store size is x…‘ You can learn a lot about whether your market really fits their model. It’s like writing a resume. You need to make your resume and cover letter fit them.”

Feasel says that in the past, economic development has not typically been about attracting retail to an area. “It’s been about attracting high-wage jobs, and retailers sort of follow those jobs,” she explains. Though increasingly city and local governments across the country have begun to use attracting retail as part of an overall economic development strategy, the City of Fort Wayne still sees its role as more of an advisor and facilitator, directing people to resources, helping with permits when needed and offering incentive programs such as façade grants.

Feasel directs the City’s Downtown Incentive Program in conjunction with the D.I.D., and tries to help smaller business interested in downtown find a space that suits them. “A compressed urban area is different than a shopping center,” Feasel says. “In a shopping center, you might have a marketing office that does your marketing for you. They do your snow removal, your landscaping, and the cost of that might be included with the lease. But they’ll tell you that you have to open at these days, these times, etc. What you have downtown is these independent business owners who will do what they want to do as it suits their business.”

But Feasel adds that it would be great to have more of them. She’s talked to local business owners with popular established stores in some of the suburban shopping centers, and thinks many of them might like to be downtown if they felt like there was the market, if they felt that people would follow and support them downtown. “Parking always seems to be an issue. There’s plenty of parking, but we have this suburban mentality of wanting to pull up right outside the door. But mostly they’re worried about whether their clients would follow them.”

Retail downtown is a particular challenge anyway. For one, there aren’t a lot of spaces downtown that are configured for retail at the ground level. This wasn’t always true. Older buildings were often designed with some sort of commercial space on the ground floor and apartments and/or offices above. But we knocked a lot of those buildings down a few decades ago. We’re not alone in this — a lot of Midwestern cities got rid of their older building stock from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But Fort Wayne seemed to knock those buildings down with an enthusiasm and thoroughness rarely seen in urban deconstruction outside of a Godzilla movie.

But those are the kind of places where the non-traditional retailer finds a space. “You see this down in Indianapolis, and you see it when you travel to other cities,” says Richard Davis. “Their cities may be smaller than Fort Wayne, but if they’ve retained a lot of their 19th/early 20th century storefront space, they have room for this small scale retail sector to develop.”

The problem is spacing. What older building stock Fort Wayne has remaining downtown is situated in small pockets; there’s very little that’s continuous, three or four blocks together where a cluster of businesses might go. “In some ways, what really attracts me to Wells street and Broadway is that they have what downtown doesn’t,” says Davis. “Some of the buildings are a little beat up, but they have a continuous store frontage where you can start to create a ‘main street’ type of program that you see in Goshen, for example.”

“Part of the city’s plan is doing what it calls ‘in-fill’ development to try to find corridors or areas in which it makes sense to try to connect existing spaces and clusters,” Davis continues. Recently, a group of students from Ball State came to Fort Wayne as part of a program to study how the city could use “in-fill” development to connect different pockets of development around the area, like connecting Wayne Street with the Landing via Harrison, for example, to make it a continuous sort of experience rather than a couple of clusters separated by parking lots.

The difficulty with “in-fill” programs is that that obviously requires new construction. “Even when we are able to build a new building, those are going to be expensive, because they’re brand new buildings,” says Sharon Feasel.

Downtown development has always seemed like a viscous circle — you need density in order for retail and restaurants to be successful, but those kind of businesses are reluctant to take a chance without that density being there in the first place, but that density won’t be there if there’s nothing to go to…

But cities across the U.S. are tackling this issue in some creative ways. As just one example, Sharon Feasel cites a public market in Columbus, Ohio that serves as a sort of incubator for retail businesses. A fledgling retail business that maybe can’t afford to go into a building or a storefront, if they have something they make or bring some other product line from somewhere, they rent a space or stall in this public market until they’re ready to graduate to a storefront. The concept is very similar to a farmer’s market, but open more regularly. Such a place, Feasel points out, would also serve as a downtown destination, and help to build that critical mass.

That’s just one example, of course, but Richard Davis at the D.I.D. says he’s encouraged by the number of potential business owners he hears from — through personal contact, through the business organizations in the area — who seem interested in exploring their options downtown. “You’re really trying to create niches for the unique individual kind of business, and where they may have a dream of starting a new business, you want to reduce barriers and help make that happen.”

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