CUYAHOGA FALLS: If the city opens its pedestrian mall to traffic and makes other downtown streets two-way, the area should be able to support at least 25 new restaurants and 70 additional stores, adding up to $61 million to annual retail sales.
Also, the city can support the growth of 45 new residential units a year, and a redesigned downtown would be a perfect location for many of those developments.
That was the conclusion of a new marketing analysis — encouraging news for Cuyahoga Fall officials, residents and business owners who say their central business district is tired, worn and severely underused.
After consultant Robert Gibbs of Gibbs Planning Group shared his analysis at a community meeting Tuesday night, Mayor Don Walters announced his administration was ready to do more than talk.
He “will be taking legislation to council to begin the process of opening the Front Street pedestrian mall” in the next few months, he said.
Service Director Eric Czetli estimated that if the City Council is amenable, downtown’s infrastructure could be complete in two to three years.
About 100 people attended this week’s public meeting, the third in a series seeking feedback as city planners try to decide the best design alternative.
Andrew Overbeck of urban planners MKSK said after the second public meeting in November that it was clear that most people favored keeping the city’s existing clock tower and fountain at Front Street and Portage Trail, although that required a creative solution.
The focus is now on moving the clock tower slightly to the east and navigating around the fountain and plaza while still allowing for a two-way street, bike lines and on-street parking on the part of Front Street that has been closed to traffic since 1978.
Cuyahoga Falls created the pedestrian mall during a national trend of such construction, but it turned out to be a fad. Of 200 pedestrian malls that Gibbs has studied, only 20 survived, he said.
Especially in cold-winter climates, modern shoppers avoid retail areas that require them to park in a deck and walk a block or more to reach a store.
A highlight of Wednesday’s meeting was the revelation by Gibbs that a reinvented downtown “could support 215,000 square feet of new retail shops above and beyond what you have now.”
“This is one of the strongest and most underserved retail markets we have seen in two years,” the Michigan-based planner said.
Gibbs said he visited all of the shopping centers in the region, analyzed credit-card data and collected detailed demographic information.
“We found a great deal of information about you, and we translated that into potential sales,” he said.
The city’s population is just under 50,000, but half of all downtown shoppers would come from a 4-mile radius that encompasses 102,000 people. A secondary target area takes in more than 350,000 people.
“You are an extremely large medium-sized town,” he said.
The average household income in the primary target will be $70,000 by 2021, which is below the state and national average.
“But because the cost of living is so low here, we were able to demonstrate you have a lot more disposable income than most other families living with these incomes,” Gibbs said. And that’s good news for shop owners.
Gibbs’ complete study is available at the city’s website: www.cityofcf.com.
The crowd also heard from Wendy Hodge Naylor, who has been leading a historic district survey and creating a database that might help property owners apply for special tax credits.
Meanwhile, Mayor Walters noted that two developers are already waiting for the downtown street modifications.
Last summer, River Falls Property III expressed interest in building an eight-story boutique hotel on the southeast corner of Portage Trail and Front Street.
Another developer, Coming Attractions, is talking about turning the historic Falls Theater into a restaurant and microbrewery, retail space and apartments.
“The opening of the Front Street pedestrian mall is a critical component of the realization of this project,” Walters said.
John Chlebina, president of Commonwealth Properties, said he’s been waiting 17 years for officials to take action on Front Street. That’s when he bought the first of a dozen retail, office and residential properties he now owns.
“I’ve been a fan of the idea ever since I’ve owned them,” he said. “They’ve been talking about opening Front Street for years but it’s never happened.”
Chlebina said two-way traffic and on-street parking will greatly benefit his business tenants, who he described as “isolated.”
He’s confident that this time, the city will move forward.
“They’re doing everything right,” he said.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.