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Columbus Officials Try To Entice Retailers Downtown

The City of Columbus is offering incentives to convince business owners to locate downtown and to fix up the storefronts. WOSU reports the grants and tax abatements aim to fill vacant stores. But some store owners are not convinced the incentives will work.

It's about lunchtime and it's quiet in Chet's Jewelers on East Gay Street. Store owners, a mother and daughter team, Edie and Portia Hapney swear the shop was hopping yesterday. They've been in business for 32 years and recognize the need for more retailers in the area.

Chet's is just a few doors down from the Mariott hotel. Edie Hapney said guests venture into her store all the time asking for a reference.

"Maybe a dress shop or someplace where they can buy something that they left behind at home, and there isn't any place for them to go to," Edie Hapney said.

Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District wants to fix this problem. Officials hope to entice more retailers to downtown by offering $5,000 grants for store owners who want to fix up their storefronts. The city also is offering income and property tax incentives and loans. Cleve Ricksecker directs Capital Crossroads.

"I would go so far as to say that downtown is probably the most underserved retail market in Central Ohio," Ricksecker said.

Chet's Jeweler's Portia Hapney thinks the idea will work.

"And it's about time."

Just around the corner from Chet's is High Street - one of the most heavily traveled roads in the city. But on one block of High, at the corner of Gay Street, as many as five stores are empty.

"I think if they get those storerooms filled up. Any storerooms that are vacant on the side streets will fill up," Portia Hapney said.

But some local store owners are not so optimistic. Marilyn Smith has worked at Capital Square Printing for 35 years. She has several reasons why she does not think the incentives will work. She cited this week's decision to increase parking meter fees downtown.

"Having a business downtown is not a plus right now because of the parking meter situation, the meter maids. In this economy I don't think the front of the building makes much difference to people when they're going to spend their money. So I'm not sure that it will work," Smith said.

Ricksecker, though, is convinced the plan has potential to change downtown's retail sector. But he said some myths about downtown first must be dispelled.

"Right now the message that has been given abbot downtown over the year is because of the failure of City Center Mall is that there is no demand for retail and that retail is failing downtown. And nothing could be further from the truth. I mean the mall collapsed. And when the mall collapsed all the corporate chains left downtown in a pack. But the collapse of City Center says nothing about the demand for retail in downtown," he said.

There are no major developers in downtown right now, and because of that Ricksecker said the odds of getting a chain retail store in the area are slim. So Capital Crossroads plans to appoint a retail recruiter who will act as a liaison between prospective retailers and leasing agents to encourage retail growth.

"There are just huge markets for downtown. And I'm confident that once we get the message out to people and once there is a supply of space for independent retailers to lease that we're going to see a big change in downtown. And hopefully we'll see it in the next three years or so," Ricksecker said.

In another attempt to lure people downtown the city will build special shelters and racks for bicycle riders.