citybeat (2005-48)

The Strip Status

How’s Cumberland Avenue faring?

On the Brink

Ice rink boosts downtown attendance

Rob Dansereau, Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association’s president and owner of gift-and-clothing shop Flashback, feels heartened by the Strip’s momentum, but he’s quick to identify its problems and to suggest his desired solutions. “We’re seeing the level of vacancy definitely come down and with the demolition of McGhee’s Irish Pub, we’re definitely moving in a positive direction,” he says.

With that out of the way, Dansereau pulls out his wish list. No. 1: He’d like to see landscape and design issues remedied. “We contacted seven different landscape companies to try to get perpetual care of the landscaping strips that border Cumberland Avenue, and we were unable to get anyone to take the contract from us,” Dansereau says.

The deleterious effects of foot traffic before and after football games were cited as reasons for the poor response. As such, Bob Whetsel, the City’s director of public service, offered to help. Last month, he walked the Strip with several of its business owners. “We listened to their concerns and we’ve taken some steps to improve some of the biggest problems,” Whetsel says.

The City removed a few trees, dressed some balding patches with mulch and trimmed shrubs. “Longtime fixes are much harder,” Whetsel admits. “On at least six Saturdays during the year, the things get trampled down.... I would hate to see all the natural areas be removed from Cumberland, but it’s a very harsh environment to make anything happen well.”

No. 2: Dansereau takes issue with Cumberland’s obtrusive signs. “We’re looking at trying to make Cumberland Avenue more appealing visually by amending the current sign ordinance,” he says. Businesses can currently install 50-foot signs; Dansereau would prefer a 15-foot height limit.

No. 3: The demise of McGhee’s has caused some old-schoolers to sigh nostalgically. After all, the brick, urban-style building, which opened onto the sidewalk, saw the first of local darling Robinella’s shows and was unlike any building built on the Strip in recent years, but Dansereau express optimism about the emptied space. He hopes a suitable business will move into it, and into the vacant O’Charley’s as well. He has some suggestions: “We want more diversity in retail. We’re pretty populated in chain restaurants. We’d like to get some unique local restaurants.”

Many other college-campus strips are fraught with local shops and eateries, especially record stores and bookstores; in the past 25 years, ours has come to look like any exit off any interstate.

And though Dansereau’s grateful for the proliferation of delivery restaurants, he worries that they discourage much-needed foot traffic in the area. But he takes it as a good sign that the McGhee’s plot is selling for $390,000. “The property values on Cumberland are pretty high,” he says.

Holrob Properties, which owns the McGhee’s parcel, has been shopping around for an owner. “I’ve got a couple people interested, and it’s probably a bit better since they tore the building down,” says Holrob’s Leslie Baughes.

As for O’Charley’s, it’s too soon to tell. The restaurant closed just before the Thanksgiving holiday last week, due to “real estate, customer traffic and a lot of other reasons,” says Meg Bayless, spokesperson for the restaurant.

“Foot traffic has not improved dramatically,” admits Dansereau. “The traffic flow in the area gives the impression that we’re very busy, but most of those cars are not stopping in the area.” Few people stop—in part, because of parking problems.

No. 4: “We still have a serious deficiency of publicly-owned parking lots,” says Dansereau. “And we still have predatory practices going on. Towing companies actively tow people from lots where they’ve paid to park.” Several towing companies actually own parking lots in the area. “There’s no guarantee that when you go into a place to eat that your car’s going to be there when you return,” says Dansereau. He looks at on-street parking as a possible solution to the problem.

The current streetscape isn’t particularly accommodating to cyclistseither. “There’s no friendliness to bikes whatsoever,” says Dansereau. Despite the 37 bike racks recently installed along the Strip, he says, “People aren’t comfortable riding a bike [here].”

He also identifies the stop-and-go effect of the Strip’s eight bus stops and half a dozen trolley stops as a problem. “We love having mass transit, but there’s no coordination right now.”

One thing’s for sure: the Strip is, and always will be, a work in progress, and Dansereau likes it that way.

 

On the Brink

It’s not the first time the square has hosted a holiday skate rink, but it’s the first time in 14 years, as the first incarnation lasted from ’86 to ’91. “I think everybody’s been talking about bringing it back for a couple of years now, but it just took a few people to take the reins,” says Scott Schimmel, co-owner of Bliss+Art and Bliss+Home and member of the Market Square District Association. Schimmel fronted the ice-rink effort along with Larsen Jay of local film company Double Jay Creative. “It’s taken a lot more time and money than we thought, so we found out why they hadn’t done it in 14 years,” says Schimmel.

The rink’s scale factored into its high cost; in previous years, it was only a 30-by-30 foot square, but this year’s sprawls a good portion of the square at 36-by-100 feet. In total, the rink’s cost was about $130,000, after a required base was built and a Texas company called Ice Rink Events installed the equipment, which works by funneling freon-chilled water through pipes under the rink. “The city came through with the seed money we needed,” says Schimmel. “And we hope to be able to cycle the money we make this year from admission into next year.” The rest of the money came from donations and sponsorships by local business owners.

Despite the large cost and headache-inducing logistics of the thing, Schimmel’s already looking forward to next year. “We just wish we could keep it up through January and February,” he says. “That’s the goal for next year, but it would have been at least another $70,000 for that, and we just didn’t have the money. We’re already excited about next year because it will be so much easier.”

For now, the rink will stay open through Dec. 16, on weekdays from 5 to 10 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then from Dec. 16 through Jan. 1, while the kids are out of school, the rink will open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission, including skate rental, is $5 for adults and $3 for kids.

“We’re hoping it will bring people downtown. That’s one of the reasons I got involved,” says Schimmel. Judging from the initial weekend, the plan’s already working.

SEVEN DAYS IN NOVEMBER

Wednesday, Nov. 23

Thursday, Nov. 24

Friday, Nov. 25

Saturday, Nov. 26

Sunday, Nov. 27

Monday, Nov. 28

Tuesday, Nov. 29

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