Rockin' Shopping Center

There are a lot of places to eat downtown, but when is the retail coming?

In 2007, a consulting firm named Marketing Intelligence reached out to 477 Tucsonans via a web-based survey, to find out their thoughts on the importance of revitalizing downtown.

Though only a small sample size compared to the greater population of Tucson, the participants who volunteered to take the survey were characterized as a sample of "citizens who are likely to be concerned about issues affecting the local community," as stated in a March 2010 draft report from the Downtown Tucson Partnership, entitled Revitalizing Downtown Tucson: Building the New Pueblo.

Using a scale from 1 to 7 — 7 meaning complete agreement — the participants rated a series of statements.

According to the results published in the report, when given the statement "Revitalizing Downtown is important to the community," the average answer was 5.93.

But when given the statement, "Considerable progress has been made to revitalize Downtown," the average answer was only 2.80.

Though debates are still high when it comes to the revitalization of downtown — as seen in the Tucson Weekly's cover story last week (see "Is Tucson Getting Better or Worse," July 25.) — one thing is certain, the Old Pueblo is moving forward, setting its foundations to become a more urbanized, modern city.

With an incoming streetcar, hotel and student housing developments, as well as the more than 50 bars and restaurants already in place, retail seems to be the next step — though there isn't much space left, according to Michael Keith, chief executive officer for the Downtown Tucson Partnership.

As of now, there is nothing available on Broadway Boulevard, except for 10,000 square feet at the base of the Tucson Electric Power building, and a remaining 14,000 square feet at the base of two student housing complexes, he added.

"There is no other space downtown to do retail," Keith said. "Already, before the streetcar even gets here, we've absorbed all the available retail space except for what's available in the new buildings, and that's already being absorbed at a fairly rapid rate."

By December, Keith predicts that with the exception of the TEP space, there will be no more remaining retail spaces available.

With such limited space, cost is also expected to rise per square foot, leaving whatever future retailers with the responsibility of running a business that will justify paying those rates.

"We're crossing a point where everything that will be built will be new, and the leasing rates in those new spaces will be up to $30 a square foot or higher," Keith said. "And it's going to begin to price out small or local retailers, who may not be able to afford big city rental rates."

The question will then become whether Tucson should begin to solicit big name brands, he said.

While some Tucson residents would like to see those, others are adamant to have organically Tucson-based businesses, giving the city a "unique sense of place," he added.

Developer Scott Stiteler, who owns three blocks on the east end of downtown, said he is dedicated to local business.

According to Stiteler, he has spent an enormous amount of time determining what fits in what location, including travelling to numerous cities to learn what works and what doesn't, as well as what happens when developers let larger companies in, versus sticking to local, smaller companies.

As for the lack of space for his developments, he has no worries.

"We are committed to increasing the retail experience downtown, because I think the timing is right," Stiteler said. "We've announced the hotel (a 130-room boutique hotel to be located in the Depot Plaza) ... and that'll bring a lot of people and attract retail."

Part of that hotel will include 9,000-square-feet of new commercial space, he said, adding that he believes much of it will be retail.

In addition, Stiteler said he has plans for an outdoor, highly programmed, dense "pop-up mall"— that will likely have room for 20 small businesses.

"If you can give reasons for people to come down before maybe, coming down for a restaurant or show and stay after, then retail becomes more interested," Stiteler said, adding that early adapters to downtown have a lot of synergy.

In 2011, Kerstin Block, president and co-owner of Buffalo Exchange, opened a location on Congress Street, because she believed that downtown was in need of some retail, she said, and not just bars and restaurants.

"I have high hopes, I think it (downtown) could be very nice," Block said. "Kind of like a little you know, artistic coffee shop, restaurants ... retail area, that's my hope."

With places like Buffalo Exchange, a locally-grown, internationally-known retailer expanding to downtown, it shows that downtown is beginning to build on its own momentum, according to Keith.

"She (Block) didn't need to open a store downtown," Keith said. "She wanted to. She wanted to be a part of what is happening down here. I think (people) are seeing the next hot urban spot on the west ... I don't think anybody has anything with this kind of forward momentum ... it's really quite remarkable."

For Margo Susco, owner of Hydra — a retail store that has been in Tucson for nearly 19 years — its important residents know there is already a good amount of retail downtown.

"We're there and we're strong," Susco said. "I would love for people to continue to come downtown during the day to see what retail is currently down there."

That being said, Susco said she is definitely looking forward to more retail coming.

"As a retailer, any type of competition is healthy, any type of retail stores that complement us are healthy," Susco said. "So I'm very excited for people to bring more retail down (town), because that just brings more people down."

As future retail continues to build on itself and grow downtown, Tucson will benefit economically, via sales tax designed to benefit the entire region.

"What you're seeing downtown is organic," said Fletcher McCusker, chair of the Rio Nuevo Board. "You have dozens of people identifying small opportunities and taking advantage of them. It's more contagious than it is planned, but it's quite exciting to watch."

As for the revitalization of downtown as a whole, McCusker said he thinks it's quite extraordinary.

"Particularly when you remind yourself that this is the private sector. This is not the city or Rio Nuevo or the government ...these are risk takers, young entrepreneurs, people spending their own money to bring back a kind of walkable destination," McCusker said. "We're seeing signs of real life and sustainability."

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