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Storefront vacancies plummet

February 27th, 2017

By Dan Spalding | Times Union

Elysian, Rua and Meraki are some of the new names leading an entrepreneurial insurgency of business growth into downtown Warsaw.

Just as unique as the names, though, is the retail success happening in the downtown business district.

In the past two years, the business district has seen significant changes with the opening of women’s boutiques, restaurants and event spaces that are being used occasional for pop-up shops for businesses to test the waters.

More openings are expected within the next few months that will help push the retail vacancy rate to well below 10 percent – its lowest in decades, according to several people familiar with the retail district.

With eight restaurants open within a few blocks of each other, the downtown is often abuzz with activity, and sweeping away its reputation for inactivity on weekends and nights.

The city is experiencing a re-growth that other town leaders only dream about.

“It’s something every community wants and we’re fortunate that we have a pretty good influx of people into our downtown in the daytime,” said Mayor Joe Thallemer.
“When people come to visit the downtown, it’s nice to project that image of prosperity and success,” he said.

The lack of available retail space is becoming a challenge, said Rob Parker, executive director of Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce and Warsaw Community Development Corp. 

Officials will continue to look for ways to accommodate retail demand, he said.

“If we had more space available, i think we’d have more entrepreneurs coming, especially in the food services,” Parker said.

NEW GROWTH 

Much of the growth is attributed to new investment.

The epicenter of recent change has been across from the courthouse on the northeast corner of Buffalo and Center streets where Greek’s Pizza once stood.

Michelle Stavrou, who moved from Cleveland two years ago to work for Zimmer Biomet, purchased three storefronts. She recently renovated the corner store into a unique three-level wine cafe known as Books, Wine and Dogs.

The cafe offers live music on Wednesdays and weekend events have included book signings and a chance to check out rescue dogs.

Stavrou is enthused about the infusion of new activity and wants to see more.

“That was kind of the reason why I took the other two store fronts, so I have a little bit more control of who would be my neighbors and to get more people downtown,” Stavrou said. “I wasn’t going to rent it out as office space.”

“There’s kind of a revival going on in the downtown and I want to be part of it,” she said.

She’s already making inroads. Next door to her cafe is Lake Area Promotional Specialties, a custom embroidery and apparel store operated by Jon and Tina Goon. They’ve owned the company for about 10 years and had been a block away on Market Street for four years. They said they’ve already noticed increased foot traffic and sales.

The third property owned by Stavrou is the old Kelainey’s ice cream shop, which is tentatively set to become a bakery, Mamma’s D’s, featuring sandwiches, salads as well as biscuits and gravy, according to Doris Taylor.

Further to the east, an Allstate Insurance office opened two weeks ago.

Two doors down, Meraki Collective & Collaborations, a women’s boutique aimed at young women with children, opened up two weeks ago.

Courtney Freeman opened the boutique after partaking last year in pop-ups at The Vic and Tourmaline, two event spaces along Buffalo Street. She and her business partner, Brianna Henegar-Newman, both like the fact that several of the new merchants are young risk takers.

“That’s when the vibes are the best and the people are the best because they’re so passionate about what they’re doing,” Henegar-Newman said.

Another merchant, Elise Wright, 26, tested the waters with several temporary pop-up events, including one at Tourmaline.

Her women’s boutique offers apparel and home goods, including a collection of stylish bracelets and chokers designed by Ameka Lauter, who operates wristcandydesign.com and works at the store.

Wright said the pop-ups showed there was enough demand to give the business a try.

She credits the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce for helping find her a permanent store location. She thinks the downtown is doing better than ever.

“We’re tapping into new customers every day,” she said.

Earlier this fall, Rua, a restaurant featuring international street fare, opened at 108 E. Market St., filling a lengthy void left after Brennan’s Pharmacy closed years ago.

Certainly the biggest investment in a long time in the downtown area was last year’s construction of the 10,500-square-foot 1st Source Bank branch at the corner of South Lake Street and Winona Avenue. The bank has a total of 81 branches, but the new Warsaw office is the biggest, second only to its headquarters in South Bend.

VISUAL INVENTORY

The downtown’s retail core covers six blocks bounded from Main to Market and Indiana to Washington streets. The area is anchored by Kosciusko County’s Justice Building and Courthouse as well as City Hall. 

A visual inventory of storefronts in and around the six-block area shows a healthy variety of offerings – eight eateries, four cafés and at least nine law firms.

On top of that, among the five dozen or so retail spaces, there’s a few specialty shops that include MudLOVE, an inspirational ceramics business that donates part of its profits to charity, and The Jerky Shop, featuring 14 varieties of locally made beef jerky, including alligator, the store’s most popular.

Expand the perimeter by two blocks and visitors also can find three pizza shops, two grocery stores and a total of eight banks.

Unlike other cities, there is virtually no blight in or around the downtown, which makes the area even more attractive.

As for vacancies, there are two empty stores on the southeast corner of Center and Buffalo – the former home of Crownover Jewelers and the Korner Grill. 
Attempts to reach the new owner for comment were unsuccessful, but those properties are not expected to remain empty for long.

Once those properties are occupied, the only visible empty storefronts may well be the old tool rental shop in the 100 block of West Market Street, some space inside the old post office on Market Street and an opening on Center Street near the library.

BIG BASE OF SUPPORT

Another factor driving activity is the large number of people working in the downtown, which includes more than 600 workers just between Lake City Bank, Zimmer and Kosciusko County offices.

The county has about 220 people working in the courthouse and justice building. Zimmer Biomet has more than 200 employees working at their downtown 
headquarters two blocks away.

But the biggest stakeholder by far is Lake City Bank, which employs 234 people. 
In addition to its headquarters, it  has several other nearby buildings. The company has begun renovating another property on Buffalo Street that it recently purchased and also uses space in the same building that houses CenturyLink.

“Lake City Bank’s presence is a huge factor in the vibrancy that we’ve got downtown,” Thallemer said.

Another move that has worked in the city’s favor is the relocation of city hall a few years ago to the old First National Bank building across the street from the courthouse.

The move was only a few blocks from its former home, but it eliminated a huge physical void left by the bank. Nearly two dozen people work in city hall and it is also home to OrthoWorx, a group that works to support orthopedics in various ways.

MORE GROWTH ON THE WAY

Increased activity in the downtown comes on the heels of more big plans by the city with the aim at increasing the number of people living in the downtown.

Later this year, construction is expected to begin on a $27 million development along Buffalo Street near Center Lake. Plans include town houses, some mixed use and a plaza near the lake. Potentially, it could result in 50 to 60 residential units.

The city is also supporting revitalization of the Little Crow Foods building into apartments on the city’s near-east side that could add about 40 apartments.
But officials believe the Buffalo Street project, which will likely see construction begin this summer, could be a game changer that extends the downtown footprint toward the lake.

The city has been following recommendations from a 2002 long-term plan known as Hyett Palma that, among other things, suggested the downtown grow northward.

Thallemer suspects the Buffalo project  could lead to further construction by the private sector.

“As Hyett Palma said, we truly are going to expand the boundaries of our downtown up to the shores of Center Lake,” Thallemer said. “Everything is just kind of taking off. It’s gratifying to see that the things we’ve done are paying off.”

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