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GRDadof3

Downtown Rockford Retail

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Chapter II of my series exploring surrounding communities, their downtown retail scenes, and photo-logging my experiences.

This is Rockford. For those of you new to the area or just checking in from other locales, Rockford is in the Grand Rapids Metro Area and is about 15 miles from downtown GR. It basically marks the northernmost part of the Grand Rapids suburban area:

http://maps.google.com/maps?ie=UTF8&oe...p;z=10&om=1

Most of Rockford area residents reside in the surrounding exurban communities of Plainfield, Courtland, Algoma, and Cannon Townships. But Rockford actually has an historic downtown, and the city population is just over 4000. It is crossed by two of the best recreational amenities in Kent County: the White Pine Trail State Park (rail trail from Grand Rapids to Cadillac), and the "Blue Ribbon Trout Stream" Rogue River. It is also home to one of Kent County's largest employers, Wolverine World Wide (makers of Merrill, Hush Puppy, Harley Davidson and Wolverine footwear, as well as Patagonia clothing), as well as numerous other employers.

Downtown Rockford has always had a quaint downtown retail vibe, but recently it has stepped up its efforts in order to compete with big box retailers moving into the area. Parking along the main streets is restricted to 15 minutes. Parking in back lots is unrestricted.

Can any of these principles be applied to downtown GR, or Creston, or Alger Heights, or Wealthy Street, etc..?

We'll start at the epicenter of downtown, the corner of Main and Courtland Dr. Downtown Rockford pipes in music in the downtown area. To get the full effect, click on this video while you view the photos:

The Corner Bar is a staple in the community, and several years ago underwent a big renovation. It has a walk-up window where lunch-goers can order food. It's part of a nicely redone block of old buildings on the SW corner of the epicenter:

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This was on a weekday late in the lunch hour:

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Moving South on Main St:

Benches and a nice canopy of trees fill downtown:

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Small unique touches make for a great environment:

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Looking East across Main Street. I believe this store moved a year or two ago, and features home furnishings and accessories:

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Open storefronts beckoning shoppers inside with well merchandised displays. I'd have to say the "merchandise per square foot" in these stores is astronomically higher than their national chain competition. I think this creates a "shopping adventure" for many buyers.

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Women's clothing:

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Flower shop, and a Sam's Joint family restaurant (metro GR chain):

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Art and home decorations:

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with a clever name:

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Coffee shop cafe tables:

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A few more stores and then around the corner is this remade auto garage (which also got a recent new paint job):

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Crossing Main to the East and looking back West:

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Looking North on Main Street. The wall to the right in this picture screens a parking and mechanical area:

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Yet the wall is not an affront to the senses. They also have strategically placed drinking fountains scattered around downtown (would that work in downtown GR?):

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Rockford's infamous clock:

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The speakers hanging from the light poles are pumping out music (classical today):

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More accessories for the home:

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Nice colors and finishes:

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Looking back across at the Corner Bar block. I believe they've turned the upstairs into residential:

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Retailers across Courtland, including a Glik's Department Store:

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Around the corner and we find a Merle Norman's chain:

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Crossing Courtland.

On the North side of Courtland looking West toward the epicenter:

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Part 2 coming up...

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Part 2

Having worked in Rockford previously, I've always noticed this part of Courtland was a bit dead compared to the rest of downtown, but it seems to be on the upswing (with just the addition of the pizza place). One store can act as a great catalyst.

Interesting window boxes on this one. A sign in the basket says "Welcome and help yourself to...."

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Saw this and thought I had gone back in time:

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School spirit is big in Rockford:

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One of only a few vacancies I saw (they moved across the street):

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Pizza joint:

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Good old fashioned department store:

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The ever important pedestrian-friendly infrastructure is omnipresent everywhere. These peninsulas cut the width of the street almost in half:

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This stop sign in the middle of the street gives a very clear message to drivers. PEDESTRIANS RULE:

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Courtland & Main (a sign in the window says that major changes are in store for this gallery). Let's hope they restore those grand upstairs windows:

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Aunt Candy's Toy Company moved from around the corner to this larger space. Again, this store has more toys per capita than anywhere I've ever seen:

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Impromptu bike and stroller parking:

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More eye candy for adventurous shoppers (mainly the female demographic):

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There's Kimberly's:

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And then Lil Kimberly's

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A vacant alley turned "urban plaza":

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Rockford's community gathering space is a nice little pavilion (no skateboarders allowed):

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A great addition to Rockford:

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This storefront has been through numerous changes of ownership. Not sure why.

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Music still playing (at a nice "background music" level)

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Another staple, the old mill turned Arnie's Bakery and Restaurant along the river:

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One of the main parking areas in Rockford. Free parking for as long as you need:

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Part 3 coming up...

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Part 3

(Click one of the video links above if the music stopped)

Courtland Drive West of Main is a one-way street, and turns then down Squires St which is also a one way street. All of these stores and businesses are along Squire:

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Belle of the Ball tuxedos and formal wear:

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Ice cream:

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Great Northern Trading Co.

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Rockford Welcome Center and Chamber offices:

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One of the most interesting areas downtown is this old sawmill (?) turned upscale clothing store called Jade. A strange mix of rustic and urban architecture styles:

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Another Rockford landmark, The Dam Dogs (I'm surprised no one in Rockford has censored the sign yet :whistling: )

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More gifts and antiques:

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Looking across Bridge St at a remodel and a brand spanking new infill project (to be covered in the next part):

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One of the biggest attractions in Rockford, the dam on the Rogue River. Many of the areas around the dam have been renovated to provide for terraces, seating areas, and viewing areas. I watched a couple 30 - 36" salmon (?) try to swim up the dam as I was there (but didn't photograph well):

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(click for full image)

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Looking back toward downtown Rockford and the backside of businesses on Squires St:

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Something about the sound of rushing water makes for a relaxing environment:

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(click for full image)

Last part, the infill project called The Promenade, on Bridge St:

493677787_0e91e94ce8.jpg

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So does downtown Rockford's retail thrive because there's no mall nearby? It's quite a drive to the malls south of town so the closer option wins?

There also isn't really a 28th street/Alpine Franchise city right?

How has the city encouraged businesses to locate downtown rather than along the busy Northland drive/10 mi road intersection?

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Sorry eagle, one more part. :)

Part 4

This project is called the Promenade. It was formally home to an old water plant that was no longer used by the city of Rockford. They set out to redevelop the site, and invited developers to submit proposals. This was the winning pick, and included moving Morris Schnoor and Gremmel Insurances offices to this site from their previous office on Main St.

I like the fact that they threw out convention and went with a Southwestern/Italian style that doesn't look anything like the rest of Rockford. The owner of Frenz Coffee Shop here told me the stone and tile were brought from Texas and New Mexico. The above photo hides the sheer immensity of this development:

Looking the opposite direction from the other end:

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The overriding parking lot orientation on the East side is made up on the West side facing the river, where a new PUBLIC boardwalk and gazebo was installed:

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(the White Pine Trail can be seen in the right portion of this image)

In addition to the insurance offices, the main anchor on the downtown and river side of the development is an upscale restaurant called Reds on the River (that website music leaves much to be desired BTW), with an enormous wraparound porch, both on the main floor and an upstairs patio served by an outdoor circular stair. One of the best restaurant designs I've seen in this area.

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Moving past Red's to the public walkway along the river:

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In addition to the restaurant, the ground floor hosts several retail bays with a coffee shop, wine shop (owned by Red's), and a clothing store. All retail bays go front to back (so nothing is just facing the parking lot or just the river):

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In two spots, cuts were made in the building to allow access from front to back:

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A nicely placed ATM (to pay cash to these local businesses :thumbsup:) :

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The back bays were vacant. It's all about exposure. Even the coffee shop owner said that they have to rely mostly on word of mouth because of their location toward the back. I did notice there was no sign at the front of the development telling what tenants were there (just a sign that said The Promenade).

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The public gazebo:

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I think it's great that Rockford officials required that the river access be left public. The restaurant could have easily pushed their patio out to the riverbank.

Hope you enjoyed the tour. Ideas, comments, feedback?

In answer to your question eagle, I think they have created a niche and critical mass to lure specialty retailers. I don't see any of those gifts and boutique shops lasting very long in a strip mall on 10 Mile. The big part of this "unique shopping experience" is the sense of adventure (what's behind that display, what's around the next corner, what special trinket or hidden treasure will I find). You'll never get that at Meijer or Target, and I think there is a market for that, especially moreso for women. Although I'm sure a Cabela's provides a similar shopping adventure for men and women alike.

The power shopping areas are all about convenience, get what I need and get out. Specialty retail centers are all about the "shopping exploring". I don't think these downtowns serve as a more convenient shopping area than the malls. They are a completely different dynamic. During the warmer months, a shopping experience like Holland or Rockford blows away a stale mall environment. Just my $.02.

Compare that to downtown GR. Can the Downtown Alliance truly say that they have something that should be "kept a secret" (like it's a hidden gem)?

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One little fun addition. While I was there, the Batmobile was parked at Red's. Don't know who the driver was.

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It was quite the spectacle:

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Usually the planners behind each Midwest Tandem Rally (it changes locations every year) plot cycling routes to take the riders to unique, interesting local sights and venues. The '05 edition (based here) went to Rockford.

We really don't want to get started on outdoor Muzak. No, we don't.

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I find that piped-in music so objectionable.

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Just to play devil's advocate, do you like or not like the music you can hear as you pass in front of Tre Cugini, San Chez and the patio at TAPS? Personally I love it and wish there was more of it. :thumbsup:

When things are as bad as they are in downtown GR, sometimes you have to throw s**t up against a wall and see what sticks (at a reasonable cost). Just trying to stay open-minded.

One reality we may have to realize is that a vibrant, hopping retail scene downtown GR may not even appeal to 75% of the forumers of UP. But it will still be vibrant and hopping and good for the city as a whole. I personally wouldn't shop at any of the gift and boutique stores in Rockford, but when looking at it from a marketing standpoint, it's not about what I would do.

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So does downtown Rockford's retail thrive because there's no mall nearby? It's quite a drive to the malls south of town so the closer option wins?

There also isn't really a 28th street/Alpine Franchise city right?

How has the city encouraged businesses to locate downtown rather than along the busy Northland drive/10 mi road intersection?

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That was so much fun. You did a great job, once again!

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That was so much fun. You did a great job, once again!

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Just to play devil's advocate, do you like or not like the music you can hear as you pass in front of Tre Cugini, San Chez and the patio at TAPS? Personally I love it and wish there was more of it. :thumbsup:

When things are as bad as they are in downtown GR, sometimes you have to throw s**t up against a wall and see what sticks (at a reasonable cost). Just trying to stay open-minded.

One reality we may have to realize is that a vibrant, hopping retail scene downtown GR may not even appeal to 75% of the forumers of UP. But it will still be vibrant and hopping and good for the city as a whole. I personally wouldn't shop at any of the gift and boutique stores in Rockford, but when looking at it from a marketing standpoint, it's not about what I would do.

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Having grown up in Rockford and run a retail operation there about 8 years ago, I have to say that what they have done is impressive. The community has really embraced downtown and people are putting a lot a sweat equity into their buildings.

The interesting thing is that the downtown housing stock is pretty poor. There are some gems downtown, but the city is full of rentals and suffers some of the same absentee issues GR does.

I personally don't like the Promenade in Rockford. It's a beautiful building, well done, but I don't think it fits at all. Rockford was a mill town. I think the new building looks like a Tuscan Villa. :) Maybe it's just because I grew up there, but I would have liked something that tied in with the rest of the buildings. Especially near the dam.

I do agree though, GR has a thing or two to learn from Holland and Rockford. You going to Saugatuck next? :)

Joe

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Having grown up in Rockford and run a retail operation there about 8 years ago, I have to say that what they have done is impressive. The community has really embraced downtown and people are putting a lot a sweat equity into their buildings.

The interesting thing is that the downtown housing stock is pretty poor. There are some gems downtown, but the city is full of rentals and suffers some of the same absentee issues GR does.

I personally don't like the Promenade in Rockford. It's a beautiful building, well done, but I don't think it fits at all. Rockford was a mill town. I think the new building looks like a Tuscan Villa. :) Maybe it's just because I grew up there, but I would have liked something that tied in with the rest of the buildings. Especially near the dam.

I do agree though, GR has a thing or two to learn from Holland and Rockford. You going to Saugatuck next? :)

Joe

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Haha, I had thought of Saugatuck (and Douglas, which has had some reinvestment lately).

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Too bad the Promenade doesn't include residential units above the retail. What a great location, particularly if the units overlooked the river. Are there other sites nearby that could be developed or redeveloped for residential and I'm thinking condos/multi-family? What a great opportunity to appeal to people who want to be able to stroll "downtown" for coffee, breakfast, a little window shopping, and some exercise and socializing.

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There are a ton of vibrant downtowns you could tour.

I still think we're all missing the point if we think Grand Rapids can emulate Rockford's downtown (or Saugatuck's or Holland's even).

Those are all bedroom communities. The economics of a bedroom community's downtown are entirely different than those of a regional urban center like Grand Rapids.

Sure, you can emulate the ped-friendly street-center stop signs....but on Monroe center, with 1,000 times as many cars it'll look like the bill-pay-box at City Hall (i.e. smashed into by a car) pretty darn quickly.

I'd wager that the solution to downtown GR retail lies in emulating a city of equal size but thriving downtown. The only Michigan example I can think of is Ann Arbor (which is discussed on UP often enough) but are there any in the midwest that we can examine for best practices?

I'll admit that outside of true college towns (e.g. Ann Arbor, Madison) I don't spend much time in other mid-sized midwestern cities so I really don't know the answer.

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I agree. I think if you look at any retail, it is the "experience" that you get. GRDad points out a lot of great things that retailers do to create an experience.

Senses are one thing. Sight, sound, smell. Obviously, sound was a great thing for him. Smell works really well in a candy shop, coffee shop, bakery. Overstocked shelves work well for stores that have unique items (Little Bohemia does this well). Window displays and open doors welcome people in. When people shop, entertainment is definitely core to what people look for. It's the whole experience. The experience is everything unless you are buying a pound of hamburger or picking up two-by-fours.

Downtown retail may require a different experience than Rockford or Saugatuck, but the idea is exactly the same.

Joe

My point in focusing on those small details is that they do make a difference in the shoppers' experience. The "total shoppers experience" in downtown GR is weak. The main thing going for downtown GR for retail is its "urban-ness" and its architecture, but right now it's overshadowed by a feeling of walking through an old decrepit mall with stores frozen in time. I don't get that feeling at all in most of Holland or Rockford.

I wonder how they determine demographics for downtown retail? I really find it hard to believe that the urban areas surrounding a downtown like Indianapolis is that much different from Grand Rapids. In fact, Indianapolis is airing commercials here trying to get people to go to their downtown.

edit: I was thinking the same thing Explorer55. I don't think the insurance offices take up the entire top floor. I didn't see any areas in that vicinity that would work, or at least nothing jumped out at me. They are starting to do some residential renovations above some of the storefronts.

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I agree. I think if you look at any retail, it is the "experience" that you get. GRDad points out a lot of great things that retailers do to create an experience.

Senses are one thing. Sight, sound, smell. Obviously, sound was a great thing for him. Smell works really well in a candy shop, coffee shop, bakery. Overstocked shelves work well for stores that have unique items (Little Bohemia does this well). Window displays and open doors welcome people in. When people shop, entertainment is definitely core to what people look for. It's the whole experience. The experience is everything unless you are buying a pound of hamburger or picking up two-by-fours.

Downtown retail may require a different experience than Rockford or Saugatuck, but the idea is exactly the same.

Joe

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I agree. I think if you look at any retail, it is the "experience" that you get. GRDad points out a lot of great things that retailers do to create an experience.

Senses are one thing. Sight, sound, smell. Obviously, sound was a great thing for him. Smell works really well in a candy shop, coffee shop, bakery. Overstocked shelves work well for stores that have unique items (Little Bohemia does this well). Window displays and open doors welcome people in. When people shop, entertainment is definitely core to what people look for. It's the whole experience. The experience is everything unless you are buying a pound of hamburger or picking up two-by-fours.

Downtown retail may require a different experience than Rockford or Saugatuck, but the idea is exactly the same.

Joe

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What has The Van, Devos Place and other civic places done for retail downtown? Is there any evidence that suggest these institutions are laying the foundation for retail prospects? I've heard this before, but some folks have suggested that downtown needs bodies. With concerts, conventions, festivals, etc... doesn't it already have quite an influx of people?

What's wrong with downtown does it have a bone fide retail opportunity or is it just overestimated, because of the recent building progress?

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What has The Van, Devos Place and other civic places done for retail downtown? Is there any evidence that suggest these institutions are laying the foundation for retail prospects? I've heard this before, but some folks have suggested that downtown needs bodies. With concerts, conventions, festivals, etc... doesn't it already have quite an influx of people?

What's wrong with downtown does it have a bone fide retail opportunity or is it just overestimated, because of the recent building progress?

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I don't think the economy can be a scape goat right now.

From the threads on this subject some paint a different picture. What "retail" should Downtown attract? Is a concert, booze and food providing for a base for retail to build off of? I'm under the impression that Devos Place and The Van were thought of to build a base for the a spectrum of retail opportunities. Sure, booze and food have followed, but what else is there to expect?

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I don't think the economy can be a scape goat right now.

From the threads on this subject some paint a different picture. What "retail" should Downtown attract? Is a concert, booze and food providing for a base for retail to build off of? I'm under the impression that Devos Place and The Van were thought of to build a base for the a spectrum of retail opportunities. Sure, booze and food have followed, but what else is there to expect?

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