Entertainment Focus May Be Downtown's Weakness

Imagining downtown as something besides our entertainment district

Downtown held yet another celebration last week as the long-awaited S&W Grand finally opened. There was a Friday night private gala there, hosted by Knox Heritage, and a Sunday grand opening preview for the general public. The past few years have seen a few such extravaganzas downtown—Mast General Store and the Regal Riviera openings, for example. Shopping malls don't seem to have the same sort of festivities when they open a new business.

One thing I noticed amid the S&W hoopla was that Mast General Store was doing a bang-up business. The store was busier than usual that weekend. It seemed that several people made it a day out that included attending an S&W event, as well as doing some shopping. Smaller stores on Market Square were seeing increased traffic as well.

Nowadays people are starting to make visits to downtown for more than just a one-stop, single-destination trip. And with nearly any activity or event that amps up sidewalk traffic, one thing you can count on is seeing a lot of brown shopping bags from Mast, distinctive purple and green wrappings from Bliss, and hand-decorated parcels from Vagabondia.

I'm as happy as anyone about the S&W opening. It speaks well of the community to have preserved a building so near and dear to its heart. And I wish them well. During the ribbon-cutting, it seemed that it was so much more than just another restaurant opening. People felt like something was being returned to them. Heritage was being maintained. But putting aside the victory celebration for preservationists and the wave of gleeful nostalgia that permeated Gay Street, it really was just another restaurant opening. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that we really need some openings of a different sort.

Market Square has filled out with offerings like Soccer Taco and Sangria, the new tapas restaurant, with Steamboat Sandwiches waiting in the wings. In addition to the new S&W, Gay Street has picked up Havana Nights, and the buildout for the new Lenny's Sub Shop is nearing completion. And while most are pleased with these additions, some downtowners are starting to quietly question just how many new restaurants we need.

Mast General Store was recruited as an anchor retail store for downtown. The idea of an anchor is to create frequent visitors who are likely to check out smaller stores in the vicinity. And though dining options downtown have grown substantially over the past few years, retail offerings haven't kept pace.

In 2007, the Central Business Improvement District received a report completed by H. Blount Hunter Retail & Real Estate Research. At the time the report was presented, Mast General Store had opened its doors, but downtown was still awaiting the much-anticipated Riviera cinema. It specifically singled out the segment of Gay Street between Wall Avenue and Clinch Avenue as a target area for developing retail, echoing the call for retail development on Gay in preceding reports by Gibbs Planning Group, and by the firm Crandall Arambula.

As part of a long-term strategy for developing a stronger retail base, one of the recommendations the report offered was that downtown needed to attract more (you got it) restaurants. The strategy, it suggested, was to first get people to come here for the cultural, entertainment, and dining options, and then to build on that traffic with a plan targeted toward increasing retail sales.

So far, so good.

But that was 2007. Since then we seem to have succeeded in that goal of more restaurants, and the city is making headway toward other supporting recommendations to improve the retail environment, such as providing better wayfinding and improved parking. But Mast's success, which occurred despite the shortcomings these recommendations were designed to ameliorate, hasn't fostered the additional retail activity anticipated. And it's time the city started directly addressing that objective.

My concern is that downtown is falling short of its goal of being a diverse mix of retail, restaurants, and residential, and is instead starting to look more like an entertainment district. At first, that may not seem like such a bad idea. Particularly if you've come to see it that way and enjoy the opportunities it offers for a night on the town. But among the problems that face such areas is that they tend to fall victim to boom and bust cycles.

When people come to downtown for an evening, it's about as likely that they're going to dine at more than one restaurant as it is that they're going to see more than one movie or attend more than one show. But if those shopping bags are any indication, they'll visit any number of stores. Malls may have taken a toll on downtowns across the country. But I'll wager that wasn't because of their food courts.