Steller: Retailers' dreams keep dying in downtown Tucson

2014-05-18T00:00:00Z 2014-05-18T21:17:10Z Steller: Retailers' dreams keep dying in downtown TucsonTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

John “Flano” Flanagan’s downtown dream died last year, well before Kerstin Block’s was dashed last week.

And Maggie Golston’s downtown dream died years ago, right before Flanagan’s came to fruition in the same spot.

For years before any of them appeared on the scene, people have been putting their money and their hopes into retail businesses in downtown Tucson, thinking perhaps this would be the moment that downtown would finally take off, and their businesses with it. So far, most — including Flanagan with his Celtic store, Golston with her bookstore and Block’s clothing resale store — have been wrong.

“I loved downtown. I loved what it had,” said Flanagan, owner of Flanagan’s Celtic Corner, which moved out of downtown in August.

His business, which started in 2007 at 222 E. Congress Street dwindled because of the construction for the modern streetcar, Flanagan said. He’s reopened at 2719 E. Broadway.

“Now I’m basically starting over,” he said.

The closure Friday of Block’s Buffalo Exchange resale store sent a surprising message to those following downtown’s revival. Despite the area’s growing nightlife, downtown retailers still need a special formula to succeed.

Buffalo Exchange, a Tucson-based clothing resale store with a record of success in urban areas around the country, seemed a natural fit. But to Block’s surprise, as my colleague Angela Pittenger reported Thursday, there just weren’t enough customers, either bringing in clothes for trade or buying them off the racks.

Unable to park right in front of the store, few people brought in the bundles of clothes that are the staples of other stores.

When I was there Thursday, University of Arizona senior Ashlee Espensen walked in with a bag of clothing to sell but was told the downtown store doesn’t accept them. She was surprised to hear the store is closing.

“I think it’s because people don’t know downtown is developing so much,” Espensen told me.

Of course, she’s one of those relatively rare people in Tucson who aren’t intimidated by the need to either hunt for a parking space on the street or find a space in a nearby garage. (Or walk, bike or take the bus.)

I share her view that parking downtown, so often maligned, just isn’t that hard. When I drove to Buffalo Exchange on Thursday at midday, I saw five metered spaces available within a block of the store, but I had to drive around two blocks to get to one.

No big deal for some people, but obviously a big deal for a lot of Tucsonans, even though hundreds of spaces are available in nearby garages.

A half-block down Congress, I asked one of downtown’s retail survivors, Margo Susco of Hydra Leather and More, what it takes.

“The bottom line is, if you’re going to be downtown, you should be a destination,” said Susco, whose store is approaching its 20th anniversary this year.

But of course, there are many more details than that, including knowing your market, having a plan and adjusting to changes, such as downtown’s transformation to a high-end restaurant and nightlife destination.

“We positioned ourselves for the audience they’re bringing in now,” she said. “But you always have to be cognizant that you’re in Tucson.”

Generally speaking, Tucson is a cheap town.

That’s part of what attracted Golston downtown in 2002, when she opened Biblio bookstore at the same site Flanagan’s Celtic Corner later occupied, 222 E. Congress.

“I got in partly because I felt like (downtown) had bottomed out,” Golston said. “Real estate was dirt cheap on the east side of Congress. Rio Nuevo had got started.”

But that was the doldrums of Rio Nuevo inertia, when money was going toward plans that were never realized. She closed in 2006.

“My feeling is that Buffalo Exchange has such a fabulous business model that they’ve exported it around the United States,” Golston said. “For them to fail should be a red flag to anybody.”

But hope always seems to survive among downtown Tucson retailers. Fed by Threads, a seller of organic and vegan clothing, opened at 350 E. Congress on Saturday.

A Perfect Pantry, 21 E. Congress, has survived for more than two years and is slowly growing, owner Amy Pike said. She is considering the now-closed Buffalo Exchange site as a potentially better fit for her “urban lifestyle emporium,” which sells gifts and items for the home.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I’m staying downtown.”

And Scott Stiteler, the downtown developer who is planning a hotel at East Broadway and South Fifth Avenue, said he’s had numerous inquiries for a space he’s considering vacating. Stiteler and partner Rudy Dabdoub this month opened their Connect co-working space in the Rialto Building and are considering closing the smaller version they had already opened at 245 E. Congress.

At least three inquiries were from potential retailers, he said. But he’s being cautious.

“As a landlord, I don’t want to get into a relationship with someone where in a year they might be struggling or not make it,” he said.

Stiteler, Dabdoub and others, such as downtown broker Buzz Isaacson, take the long view that I think is the best way to look at downtown retail. We simply need more people — especially more workers and residents — walking up and down the streets to give retailers a chance.

The area’s planned grocery store, Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market at 11 S. Sixth Ave., will be an interesting test case.

If one or two new stores take hold and survive, maybe, finally, others will also be able to grind out a symbiotic existence. Then a few hopeful entrepreneurs’ downtown dreams will finally become a long-lasting reality.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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