The Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District Board has an ambitious plan to turn empty buildings on the Sunshine Mile along Broadway into thriving businesses.
It is a plan mostly on paper for now as the city moves forward to widen East Broadway between Euclid Avenue and Country Club Road to a six-lane road with bike lanes, sidewalks and landscaping.
Dozens of buildings are already empty, victims of an uncertain future ever since the city first promised to widen Broadway in 1989. More are threatened to become empty as parking lots and even buildings are swallowed up by new lanes of traffic.
The city has worked closely with area residents and businesses for two years and has reduced the number of buildings that could be torn down for the widening from 130 to 27, said Nicole Ewing-Gavin, the interim manager of the city’s planning and development services department.
The term “Sunshine Mile” dates back to 1953, when area merchants held a contest to come up with a name for the strip of Broadway between Euclid and Country Club.
However, Rio Nuevo officials estimate 80 businesses along the two-mile stretch of Broadway will either be empty or underused when the widening is complete.
Construction along the Sunshine Mile is not expected to begin until later this year or early next year.
Last week, Rio Nuevo hired a New York City-based nonprofit, Getting Project for Public Spaces, to help identify potential redevelopment opportunities. The $87,000 contract will have the nonprofit staff meet with local businesses and property owners to discuss issues affecting redevelopment.
Rio Nuevo’s ability to give some financial incentives is expected to pair well with a pilot program the city is offering to relax zoning codes and waive fees to allow businesses to use older, smaller buildings throughout the city.
One of those properties to be hit hard by the Broadway widening is the small strip mall that has been home to the Yikes Toy Store, 2930 E. Broadway.
Current widening plans will take out about half of the parking spots in front of the business.
Owner Patricia Katchur says she is supportive of the city and the Rio Nuevo programs to help businesses affected.
“I think it is a wonderful idea and I think it helps,” Katchur said. “It is very important that Rio Nuevo is trying to step in and help with this.”
The widening, she says, impacts one of the last strips of retail that was built around mid-century modern architecture still standing in the United States.
Recently, the Sunshine Mile corridor was named one of the “Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
However, Katchur, who plans to keep her store open, warns that the previous efforts to helps businesses have often failed to meet the reality of moving a business to another location
One suggestion would have had her move her popular retail shop to an industrial park where the rent would be triple what she has been paying on Broadway.
Moving assistance, she said, was nowhere near enough to cover her costs of relocating.
“The amount of money they would give me was laughable and was a nail in my coffin,” she said.
She hopes the new efforts will not focus solely on attracting new businesses, but helping existing businesses along the Sunshine Mile.
“I think people forget about the businesses that have been here,” she said.
At least one suggestion for Yikes Toy Store and neighboring businesses would be for the city to decrease the required number of parking spaces or create agreements that will allow shoppers to park in adjacent lots.
Rio Nuevo Chairman Fletcher McCusker was optimistic about the new program, saying that, as a redevelopment and revitalization district, it can offer incentives to businesses that the city legally cannot.
In 2015, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich ruled that Rio Nuevo is exempt from the state’s gift clause, which bars municipalities and other state entities from subsidizing private entities.
“We can invite someone to a property or a building and say ‘Tell you what, we will pay six months of rent,’” said McCusker.
Using the Bisbee Breakfast Club, which opened near Country Club, and the Welcome Diner, near Tyndell Avenue, as examples, McCusker said there are plenty of opportunities for new businesses to move into the area and be successful.
“We know people will migrate to a strip if there is a reason to go,” he said.
He said Rio Nuevo could be able to help about 50 properties along the two-mile stretch.
McCusker said successes might come slowly, but thinks it is possible to work with the business community as well as the city to redevelop the Broadway corridor.
“Denver was built a block at a time, and we think we can replicate that along Broadway,” he said.