By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Some downtown businesses are thriving, some are moving and some have closed.
Joplin’s historic business district is anything but static, but its future may depend on redevelopment efforts proposed for the downtown and tornado recovery elsewhere in the city.
Nearly one-third of nearly 50 storefronts on Main Street between First and Seventh streets are for sale, for lease or inactive, despite an investment of more than $5 million in downtown streetscaping projects since 2006 and approximately $528,000 in city grants for improvements to storefronts.
City Manager Mark Rohr said via email last week that an effort is under way to push the downtown to the next level.
“I recognize the need to take the next step in downtown redevelopment. It has been a resounding aesthetic success but we are not where we need to be in making it a commercial success.
“That is the reason for, and the importance of, the SPARK project. We need a downtown destination for events that can spill over into the redeveloped downtown. Implementing the SPARK project is a priority for the master developer,’’ he said, referring to Wallace Bajjali Development Partners of Sugar Land, Texas.
Rohr introduced the SPARK plan — Stimulating Progress through Arts, Recreation and Knowledge of the past — just before the 2011 tornado.
Devised by the North Group, the proposal calls for a performing and visual arts center of about 150,000 square feet to be built near First and Main streets. The plan also includes an amphitheater, a Town Green and also could involve restoration of the Union Depot.
Early last month, the Joplin City Council agreed to take the first step toward applying for federal tax credits that might help finance some of the projects that are part of SPARK. The city is filing an application with the federal government to create the Joplin Community Redevelopment Fund, which could eventually administer tax credits the city might receive through the New Markets Tax Credit Program.
Under that program, taxpayers can buy credits to reduce their tax bills. The fund’s board could use the money generated by the sale of the credits to provide investment capital for economic development projects.
Some merchants in downtown Joplin say they are hopeful that step and others will lead to implementation of the SPARK plan, but they are remaining cautious until they see something concrete take shape. There are a lot of unknowns, they say, not only for the downtown but also because of ongoing redevelopment throughout Joplin, and especially for those areas recovering from the tornado.
“There is some uncertainty right now,’’ said Jeff Neal, with the Neal Group, which specializes in historic storefront restoration. “We are all waiting with anticipation that SPARK will happen as it is supposed to happen. Once the master developer’s plan is confirmed, funding is in place and those projects are moving forward, there will be a big impetus for people when it comes to considering the downtown as a place for a business or to live.
“Until that happens, it’s sort of holding everyone in limbo. But there is a feeling of opportunity and anticipation. When those plans are finalized, I think you will see a big increase in interest downtown.’’
Neal was the first to use a facade grant to restore Columbia Traders, 418-420 S. Main St. That storefront, with its retail area, business office and eight apartments is for sale.
Neal is working on two storefronts now — The Orpheum building at the northwest corner of Sixth and Main streets and Hackett Hot Wings, 520 S. Main St. — that are the last in the hopper for facade improvements under the guidance of the city’s Design Review and Standards Committee.
Hackett Hot Wings is getting a new glass front and entrance that is more historically appropriate for the downtown. The Orpheum is getting new second-story windows and four new glass storefronts. Another storefront that has had a recent makeover is Ron Erwin Photography, 411 S. Main St., which did not receive a facade grant.
So far, the city has helped fund 16 facade restorations, ranging in cost from $15,000 to $100,000. When the Hackett and Orpheum projects are completed, the total cost of all 16 projects could be $528,700, according to the city.
The per storefront limit for a matching grant is $37,500.
“It’s a 50-50 grant with a private match that will fund half of a $75,000 project,’’ said Jonathan Raiche, planning and community development specialist for the city. “The Orpheum, for example, has multiple storefronts. It has a maximum of $100,000.’’
The streetscaping, according to the city’s finance department, has cost about $5.3 million. Of that, $3.6 million was obtained through grants. The city’s investment has been $1.7 million.
Columbia Traders is not the only business for sale downtown. The Vinery wine shop, 120 S. Main St., also one of the earliest facade projects, is on the market.
“There is interest in the property and we have had quite a few lookers, but no offers,’’ said Michael Hagan, who started The Vinery with his wife, Michelle. “It’s in a great area, especially if the SPARK initiative happens. It will be a valuable piece of property then.’’
Business at The Vinery was growing and the business was moving into the black when “we took a big hit from the tornado,’’ said Hagan, noting that post-tornado celebrations were rare events.
“The support was there. We hear from people every day who wish it was still there,’’ he said.
Business owners and potential business developers, Hagan said, are trying to get a sense of how the SPARK project will play out and how the redevelopment plan for the tornado zone will change the landscape for business.
Hagan said it is possible that business developers might see more opportunity along East 20th Street or South Main Street than they do downtown. Both areas were heavily damaged on May 22, 2011. Businesses that might have considered the downtown area before the tornado might now be looking at how they could fit into redevelopment in the tornado-impact zone.
“There are more choices now. Hopefully we will know more when things start moving faster,’’ said Hagan. “I’m optimistic. I think we are going to come back roaring, but until then we are in a holding pattern.’’
Interest in downtown real estate depends a lot on the location and the condition of the property. Dale Phipps, a local real estate agent, recently handled the sale of the refurbished Evergreen & Amber storefront at 424 S. Main St.
“I could have sold it five or six times had it not been under contract,’’ said Phipps. “If the deal does not go through, I’ve got a list of people who are interested in that property.’’
Phipps said the interest in the property indicates to him the downtown is progressing.
“People are aware of the SPARK plan and they are aware that it’s a big deal,’’ he said. “They feel that the property downtown will continue to go up in value because they are seeing that the downtown is starting to have some business.’’
‘We like the character’
The new owner of the store will be Erik Bartlett, who operates The Run Around Running Co., 528 S. Main St. He leases that building. The SPARK plan, he said, had no bearing on his decision to buy the Evergreen & Amber storefront.
“Downtown, well, it’s just a good place for us. We feel comfortable down here. We like the atmosphere and foot traffic is not that important to our business,’’ he said. “We think it’s a good location to draw business from outside of Joplin.
“We just like the downtown. We like its character.”
Instant Karma Gourmet Hot Dogs, 527 S. Main St., is another popular downtown business. Operated by Jason Miller, it has developed into a successful lunchtime operation.
Last week, Miller decided it was time to offer a dinner menu, which will bring more people downtown at night.
“We are redoing a dinner menu, with appetizers and more upscale dinner items. The lunch menu will stay the same,’’ he said. “As part of that, we are building a bar that will have 20 beers on tap. The food will coincide with the beers.
“There is not a lot going on at dinnertime downtown. We think we can generate some dinner business.’’
Miller said he had looked at the prospect of opening another restaurant downtown. He was looking for a building that previously had been a restaurant and could not find any. That’s when he decided to take his existing restaurant and gear it for a dinner crowd.
Like Bartlett, Miller isn’t basing any of his decisions on the SPARK plan.
“We have confidence in the future of downtown,’’ said Miller. “We are not counting on (SPARK) but I would love to see it happen. I’m not waiting on anything to make my business work. My business drives itself with a quality atmosphere and good customer service.’’
Chad Greer, an architect with Corner Greer & Associates, Inc., serves on the city’s Design Review Standards Committee. His company recently relocated to a redeveloped storefront at 716 S. Main St.
“I think the Main Street movement has reached its apex with rehabilitation,’’ he said. “Some new people have moved in, but there’s a lot of space available for lease. It seems to me like we are still waiting to see what happens with the rebuilding effort.
“They are wondering how the master developer’s plan will affect the city’s commercial zones. Until that happens, I think things will remain in a state of flux before anyone commits to any big decisions,’’ he said.
Greer also said the downtown has reached a tipping point.
“It’s primarily daytime usage now. There are a few exceptions involving restaurants, but not much else,’’ he said. “Hopefully, the city’s plan will take it to the next level with more nighttime usage than we have now.’’
Trisha Patton, director of the Downtown Joplin Alliance, said, “People are waiting to see what happens and I think its smart as a business person to see where the pieces fall before you commit to anything. But I can tell you there is lot of hope downtown.’
“The SPARK Initiative is extremely critical to our future. It will affect us in several ways. It will have an anchoring destination, a town green that is beautiful and will become an icon for Joplin. That will drive traffic to the businesses downtown and along the Main Street corridor all the way to Interstate 44,’’ she said.
“When it comes to the arts, it’s smart urban development to support the arts. A venue that can adequately host professionals from around the nation and world will trigger the urban core of Joplin,’’ she said. “The arts fuel that cool urban-ness that people gravitate, too.
“Some of the current businesses downtown are struggling now because of the economy. A lot of them are holding on to see how long it takes before ground is moved and what kind of impact that will have. The hope is tremendous that SPARK could be the catalyst that makes things go.’’