Room for more retail and restaurants downtown

June 15, 2012
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Prior to World War II, downtown captured about 90 percent of all the retail dollars spent in the metro area. By 1970, that share fell to 70 percent. Today, it stands at around 2 percent.

Those estimates came from Robert Gibbs, an urban planner and retail specialist. The Downtown Development Authority hired his firm, the Gibbs Planning Group, a few months ago to analyze downtown’s current retail environment, help determine whether there is room for more retail, and, if so, which types of stores might want to locate in the district.

“Just because you don’t have a store here doesn’t mean it isn’t supportable,” said Gibbs last week to members of the DDA’s Economy Action Group. “The movement since the recession has been to only locate in urban areas.”

Gibbs said only one suburban shopping mall has been built annually in the nation over the past several years: Retailers just aren’t interested in expanding on farmland any more. In fact, he said, merchandisers are developing smaller stores to fit urban footprints because they want to be in cities — but only in clean cities.

“You’re probably one of the top five (cleanest cities) I’ve seen, and I’ve seen thousands of cities. You have a private-sector level of maintenance. One of the things I like to do is to take cheap shots at cities and show slides of graffiti. But I was only able to find one small piece of graffiti,” said Gibbs.

“I have been wowed about your downtown. Everything good about urban planning has been done here. You have good sign ordinances and good building ordinances. It’s a very walkable city, very well lit, with attractive buildings. I think there are probably some exceptionally good architects here,” he added.

Gibbs was in town last week to tour the DDA’s district and a few surrounding blocks on Wealthy Street and Division Avenue. He also made two presentations to downtown business owners. One focused on the latest retail design and merchandising strategies being used by top retailers. He also held a workshop that illustrated recent consumer trends.

In addition, Gibbs met with a dozen downtown merchants and gave each a 30-minute consulting session in their shops. “We had 27 meetings in two days and Bob Gibbs has been very generous with his time,” said Anne Marie Bessette, a development specialist with the DDA.

For starters, Gibbs said downtown has room for more shops and restaurants. “We’re trying to match what you have with strong regional, national and international tenants.” He said his firm pores over supply-and-demand data to determine which retail categories are performing well. But he added that retailers normally locate new stores through third-party developers and only where neighboring buildings are built to their standards.

Gibbs named Rockford Construction as a third-party developer that has brought locally owned retail to downtown’s core through its many renovation projects. He also pointed to Quicken Loans, which has purchased properties along Woodward Avenue in Detroit that are in line to be developed. “You should find third-party developers,” he told the group.

Gibbs also said the DDA and downtown merchants have to decide the type of retailers they want in the district and go after them. “If you just leave things the way they are, retailers will probably go to the suburbs. If you could get a Target, would you want a Target? Most cities probably would not,” he said.

No member of the action group responded to Gibbs’ largely rhetorical comment, but most agreed they wanted a more racially diverse lineup of businesses in the district — and not only retailers but also personal-service providers that appeal to minorities. They were silent, though, when Gibbs asked if they were interested in bringing some “economically diverse” retailers into downtown, such as a Dollar Store.

“Overall, it’s good here — better than most cities, but it can be better,” said Gibbs. “I’ve got to believe you could support a dozen women’s (clothing) stores here.”

At this point in time, it appears the key demographic to lure retailers to downtown are the estimated 31,000 college students who regularly walk its streets.

“There’s $80 million in spending here by college students. I think there is an opportunity to bring a dozen, or two dozen, stores here that appeal to college students. Students prefer to be in a place like this. They don’t want to be in the suburbs,” said Gibbs. “There are stores that could appeal to downtown workers, too.”

Then there is the luck factor. “It’s not unusual for a city of this quality to have a CEO come here on a gut feeling, or his mother-in-law lives in one and he comes here. I’ve seen that happen,” he said.

There is one fairly big barrier downtown may have to overcome to draw more stores. Gibbs said 70 percent of retail sales are made in the evening and on Sundays.

“You’re closed evenings and on Sundays. It’s hard for local stores to be open at night. They can’t work 20 hours a day,” he said of the owners. “They have to be home to make dinner or take their sons or daughters to a football game.”

The DDA chose Birmingham, Mich.-based Gibbs Planning Group, in March over four other consulting firms, at a cost of $132,000. Gibbs said his firm’s analysis, which is being done in two phases, should be completed in about a month, and a report should be ready in mid-July. “We’ll send it to you when we can. Instead of getting specific about stores, I’d like you to decide where you want your market share to be,” he said

“The second half (of the study) is to show you what is supportable, and have you go through that and show us what you want,” said Gibb. “We’ll walk you through that process. We’ll give you the findings and discuss those with you.”

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