insights (2008-09)

Market Squareâ's Indigenous Growth

insights

When Market Squareâ’s public plaza got an $8 million makeover five years ago, I was skeptical how much it would do to restore the moribund square to its rightful place as the vital heart of the city.

The redevelopment plan under which the city invested in the makeover called for a coordinated effort to attract retail tenants to the ground floors of the historic buildings that give the square its character. But the developer, Kinsey Probasco, abjured such a coordinative role and left the squareâ’s numerous property owners to their own devices in attempting to line up tenants for their mostly vacant buildings. At the same time, the owners were squabbling among themselves about whether Kinsey Probascoâ’s plans for enhancing the public plaza itself were conducive to commercial development. Some subscribed to the warnings of a Michigan-based consultant that retailers would only prosper if shoppers were brought to their doorsteps by running a street through the square with provision for lots of on-street parking instead of open space.

For my own part, while favoring preservation of the plaza, I subscribed to the views of other consultants and would-be master developers that for Market Square to flourish commercially it needed to be managed more nearly like a mall. Achieving an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues begged orchestration of their recruitment, I was persuaded.

Five years later, I am very pleased to acknowledge that I and other naysayers were wrong on all accounts. The indigenous approach, as it was known then, to letting Market Square spring to life on its own has begotten a diverse array of commercial activity that now permeates the square. The renovated public plaza has become the staging- and gathering-ground for an ever-growing list of special events that are pulling ever more people into the square with more frequency. And the hardy band of entrepreneurs who launched new ventures on their own are now collaborating on promotional activities through a Market Square District Association.

The five new restaurants that have opened on the square since the makeover offer a variety of cuisine and décor complementing what was once its singular attraction, Tomato Head, and three lunch spots of longer standing. A Marble Slab Creamery thatâ’s due to open in the spring will add to the mix as will a cafe associated with the Cornerstone Foundationâ’s $6.5 million conversion of one of the squareâ’s few remaining vacant buildings into a center for fostering Christian community leadership.

Pioneering retailers, such as Andie Rayâ’s dress shop, Vagabondia, and the twin Bliss outlets for home furnishings and much more created by the couple Scott Schimmel and Lisa Sorensen, appear to be faring well. The three of them have also been spearheads in the Market Square District Associationâ’s effective efforts to create and promote activities and events that draw people to the square.

The Sundown in the City concerts that pack the square on Thursday evenings in the spring and fall remain the highest-profile attraction. But the seasonal Farmers Market to which some 30 vendors now bring wares on Wednesday and Saturday has also become a major drawing card. So have the Shakespeare on the Square productions in the summer and the ice skating rink thatâ’s become a Christmas holiday season attraction. An inaugural New Yearâ’s Eve celebration drew as many as 10,000 people, and plans are in the works to make it even bigger in the years ahead. Then, of course, the Dogwood Arts Festival, the Rossini Festival, and Saturday Night on the Town continue to be mainstay events not just for Market Square but for downtown as a whole.

John Craig, who owns the building where Bliss Home store is located, has assumed the presidency of the Market Square District Association and envisions yet more happenings and more emphasis on â“getting out the wordâ” about them. â“It amazes me how many people still donâ’t know whatâ’s going on here,â” he says. To help rectify that, one part-time staffer, Mike Schoenberger, puts out a weekly newsletter to an email list of 1,200 that keeps growing. Another, Charlotte Tolley, continues to grow the Farmers Market.

After completion in 2006 of the 693-space Market Square Garage, for which the city paid $11 million, parking has ceased to be a problem, and â“I donâ’t hear anyone saying there should be parking on the square itself anymore,â” Craig says.

When the Regal Riviera Cinema finally opened last fall, â“We suddenly started seeing a slew of people coming through,â” Craig reports. But just how much patronage theyâ’ve added to the squareâ’s shops and restaurants isnâ’t clear.

While Kinsey Probasco renounced the role of master leasing agent, a start-up realtor, Conversion Properties, has come to the fore as a specialist in downtown commercial properties, and its founder Joe Petre is widely acclaimed by Market Square property owners for his feel for their niche needs.

One measure of the squareâ’s success is what itâ’s done for property values, which Petre says have â“more than doubled over the past five years.â” â"Joe Sullivan

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