Monday, September 13, 2004

Will Main Street ever be main attraction?

Waiting for revival: Antsy merchants

By Ken Alltucker
Enquirer staff writer

OVER-THE-RHINE - Keith Mueller operated the Flowers & Beyond shop just off Main Street for seven years, but he says crime and lackluster sales drove him away.

Burglars took a portable phone and stereo equipment during two break-ins in the past six months. The final straw came when a window washer swiped a bottle of Scotch from a nearby bar and offered it to Mueller at a discount.

Andre Williams of Forrest Park hangs out on Main Street in the Entertainment District downtown.
(Enquirer photo/JEFF SWINGER)
Discouraged, Mueller closed the store and reopened in Hyde Park in August.

"There's a lot of frustration on this street," Mueller said. "The (Over-the-Rhine) chamber (of commerce) is asking everybody to stay, but you can go bankrupt waiting for something to happen."

The Main Street area is Cincinnati's foremost entertainment spot, with more than a dozen clubs, bars and shops operating and scores of condos under construction.

But crime, drug dealing and panhandling persist. A half-dozen businesses have closed in recent months. Nightlife venues are prospering in the suburbs or other urban locations such as Mount Adams and Newport.

City officials and private developers see Main Street's mix of retailing, entertainment and housing for all income levels as a blueprint for reviving Over-the-Rhine, which is beset by high crime and poverty but recognized as a diamond in the rough.

Its challenges are complex - both economic and social. But despite more than $50 million in projects planned or under construction in Over-the-Rhine, some warn that the linchpin Main Street district needs attention now.

"In some ways, we've focused on the harder areas," said Des Bracey, Over-the-Rhine project manager for the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., the private development group that is spearheading several revitalization projects in Over-the-Rhine.

"We're aware of the difficulties Main Street faces and are sensitive to them. It doesn't help if Main Street slides as we focus on Vine Street or Washington Park."

'90s renaissance

Main Street's first resurgence started more than a decade ago when developers and entrepreneurs bought on the cheap, then renovated Over-the-Rhine's collection of 19th-century Italianate buildings and drew new tenants.

The most recent initiative was a plan last year to hire Memphis developer John Elkington. Under a proposed $100,000 contract, Elkington, credited with revitalizing the Beale Street entertainment strip in Memphis, would build a blockbuster entertainment venue.

That apparently ended after Elkington created a flap when he told a business luncheon that he'd never rent restaurant space to Chinese owners. That chilled the support of city leaders, and the City Council voted to reject a contract with him.

Elkington insists that he's still pursuing a project on his own, but neither business leaders nor developers who control much of the neighborhood's real estate have seen or heard from him in recent months.

His vision of a vibrant entertainment strip with anchors such as a Hard Rock Cafe or a German-themed brewery that would draw suburbanites downtown remains unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the list of neighborhood business casualties has grown, including mainstays such as Davis Furniture, Have a Nice Day Cafe, Flowers & Beyond, Bar Cincinnati, Divas on Main and Jump Cafe.

So while Main Street awaits its next savior, its challenges fester. The perception of crime in the area might be the biggest.

No other city neighborhood has as many murders, robberies and assaults. Of the 53 murders this year in Cincinnati, almost one-third (16) occurred in Over-the-Rhine.

And while the area buzzes on weekends, longtime merchants such as Shadeau Breads bakery in the 1300 block of Main say the climate makes it a daily struggle to pay the bills.

Bill Pritz, who operates the shop, says weekend traffic can be brisk, especially Saturday mornings as shoppers walk from Findlay Market to Main Street's antique and arts shops. But on weekdays, Pritz expects to ring up just over $200 each day in sales.

Some merchants say a high-profile marketing plan - emphasizing the redevelopment that is taking place and the area's architectural and pop culture pluses - is needed to draw and keep customers and residents.

The Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce wants to raise $250,000 to $300,000 a year for a marketing plan that would promote Main Street merchants. The district needs to draw more lunchtime crowds and suburban shoppers to sustain existing retailers and attract new ones, chamber president Tom Besanceney said.

Besanceney said the merchants themselves also must be more consistent in maintaining store hours. Many of the street's collection of arts and furniture shops open only weekends or on special occasions.

Another group, Over-the-Rhine Foundation, has pursued a more immediate fix. Its Markets on Main bazaar spotlights sidewalk vendors through mid-October.

"There are a group of merchants who certainly are vulnerable," the foundation's Stan Eichelbaum said. "The fact is these are people who have invested tons of sweat equity and personal value. Our effort is to salvage them and give that district its unique flavor."

Many ownership changes

Jessica Wellens, 26, of Oakley and Falin Tonello, 23, of Downtown party at Neon's in the Main Street Entertainment District.
(Enquirer photo/JEFF SWINGER)
As merchants work to grow the retail base, the entertainment flavor continues to change as well.

Some clubs such as Neon's on 12th Street remain neighborhood staples. Yet many have changed names and/or ownership despite a steady flow of crowds.

On a recent Friday night, throngs preened outside Main Street's clubs and bars, flirting, chatting, laughing. Inside, crowds of twentysomethings throbbed with the music beat.

Yet some young people such as Jessica Wellens, 26, of Oakley, find that they are making fewer trips to Main Street. Wellens said the area doesn't hold the same appeal without now-closed clubs such as Have a Nice Day Cafe or Bar Cincinnati. She spends most weekends at places closer to home in Oakley, Hyde Park or Norwood's Rookwood area.

"Main Street is slowly fading," Wellens said, listening to a band at Neon's Bar on 12th Street just east of Main.

Elkington said his idea for the neighborhood centered on landing a national chain or building a music venue with Cincinnati ties, perhaps a Bootsy Collins-themed club. Such a venue would provide Main Street more stability by appealing to a wider age range, compared to dance clubs that can be quickly discarded by younger audiences.

"That's the most fickle group of people," Elkington said.

Said Councilman Jim Tarbell: "There's still an awful lot going on. It's pretty typical of what happens in a district like that. The bar scene came along. If you look at the ones that came in and went out, they are pretty trendy. I'm not surprised by that, nor am I discouraged."

Era of rebuilding?

But bars and clubs haven't been Main Street's neighborhood's only offerings, and neighborhood observers point to positive changes they say indicate Main Street is rebuilding, not dying.

The area briefly basked in the Internet explosion as tech companies rented loft-style offices. The bust sapped much of that energy but the roots were planted, adding to the Bohemian myth of Over-the-Rhine.

A new metamorphosis has slowly unfolded in recent years as condos sprout and artists, furniture retailers, antiques dealers and other merchants have popped up in storefronts from Central Parkway to Liberty Street.

"Main Street is really going from a playground to a neighborhood," said Peter Chabris, a Realtor with Comey & Shepherd. "Before it was a 'get your drink on and get out' kind of a place. Now people live there and sleep there."

Chris Frutkin, who developed the street's first condo project, Crawford Lofts, said each phase of development brings something new and unique to the neighborhood. The result is much more mature, balanced neighborhood that supports different types of uses.

Much on drawing board

As Main Street changes, so does the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood that surrounds it. Many of the projects now bulding or on the drawing board are seen as catalysts for sparking further revitalization of the area. Among them:

• The city-financed Kroger garage and condominium project at Vine Street and Central Parkway.

• The Art Academy on 12th Street.

• The American Building condos on Central Parkway.

• Eagle Realty Group's planned Mercer commons condo project between Vine and Walnut streets.

• The private development group 3CDC is pursuing an ambitious Washington Park expansion that includes two relocated schools and a new parking garage at the neighborhood's western edge.

Whatever the elixir may be for the Main Street area and Over-the-Rhine, patience is wearing thin for those who stake their livelihood there, such as Shadeau Breads' Bill Pritz: "I've been hearing for 10 years that better days are ahead. I choose not to listen anymore."




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