New restaurants, retail coming to downtown TC

TRAVERSE CITY – Uncrowded sidewalks usually signal summer's end, but what do empty storefronts in September mean?

The months of September and June typically see businesses moving to different downtown locations or leaving, according to Rob Bacigalupi, deputy director of the Downtown Traverse City Development Authority (DDA).

While the retail vacancy rate downtown is currently at eight percent-higher than it's been in eight years, according to information on the DDA's web site-most of the vacated spots are already spoken for, Bacigalupi said.

"It takes awhile for new businesses to sign leases and move in," he explained. To the best of his knowledge, only the two former Cool Waves locations, in the 100 and 200 blocks, are not spoken for.

A new jewelry store, James C. Smith Fine Jewelry, opens Oct. 2 at the space formerly occupied by Rue 101 at Union and Front. James Smith was the head designer/jeweler at the Gold & Silver Center downtown for the past 10 years. He'll be selling his own custom design pieces and creating new designs for customers. He has 100 pieces of finished designs and 1,000 loose stones available for the opening. His wife, artist Linda Hankes-Smith, does oil paintings and designed the contemporary sales floor with colorful wall tiles and bamboo wood floors with the help of designer Richard Taylor, who'll also be helping out at the store.

"I've done a lot of work trying to build my name and reputation in the area for doing fine, quality goods," Smith said. "This opportunity came up through a friend of mine, and it felt right." The gallery will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

Rue recently moved to 141 E. Front Street, the space formerly occupied by Vintagey, which closed in August. Rue 101 owner Lindsey Hale said she's noticed more foot traffic at the new location, though it's "too soon to tell about sales."

The biggest news for downtown recently is Dan Marsh's purchase of the three-story Smith/Kurtz building on Front Street next to the State Theatre.

Marsh, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and son of the founder of the Bill Marsh Automotive Group dealerships, announced in September his plan to renovate the 107-year-old building to accommodate a ground-floor restaurant, while developing residential or commercial condominiums on the top two floors, each with 4,000 square feet of space. The building's ceiling designs and brick walls will be maintained and he plans to save as much of the wood floor as possible.

Marsh worked at the famed Rainbow Room high atop Rockefeller Center in New York, and in the City's acclaimed Union Square Café and Soho restaurant Zoe. He was also chef at Hawthorne Lane in San Francisco's South of Market District. His new restaurant will have a sushi bar, demonstration kitchen and bar. The menu will combine steakhouse-type fare with Asian influences.

"Downtown Traverse City has an energy all its own," Marsh observed. "It's a great mix of retail, dining experiences and cultural events that has people from all over the region coming here. I'm looking forward to developing my property and planning my restaurant."

Another restaurant-this one southwestern-is expected to open in Mother's Bayside Grille's former location. The owner is looking for a liquor license before making an announcement, according to Bacigalupi.

Mother's owner Elaine Martin, who closed the business a month ago, said the business had a lot of foot traffic, but the space was "too small to sustain itself" and the numbers "just didn't even out." She added that they probably didn't have enough starting capital.

On the other end of Front Street, Tom Hannah closed his nautical fine arts store at 102 E. Front St. in mid-September, citing that By the Bay, in its fourth summer, "didn't meet expectations." His Harbor Springs location at 172 E. Main St. will remain open. Later this month, First Community Bank will open in By the Bay's old space (story page 6).

Ron and Cindy Clingaman are still trying to sell their business, The Weathervane, at 108 East Front St. The couple wants to retire and has listed their business with Bill Stireman of Coldwell Banker in Traverse City. So far, there's not been much interest from buyers, Ron said.

"We're hoping someone will buy it and continue it-with their own touches, of course," he said. "We've had it for 10 years, but the store has been open for 25 years."

Results from a monthly Michigan Retailers Association (MRA) survey of its members in July, conducted in cooperation with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, shows confidence has slipped among retailers statewide, and sales reached their lowest levels in three years

"In all but two months in the past two years, the index numbers have been below the 50 mark, which indicates there's been no overall economic growth in (Michigan's) retail industry," said MRA's Tom Scott, vice president of public affairs and communications.

Scott said the decline is a reflection of the state's economy, with the restructuring of the auto industry and higher unemployment. He added that higher gas prices and interest rates may also have made consumers more cautious.

"We're interested to see how August sales around the state look, if falling gas prices are spurring back-to-school sales," Scott said. "One thing about retail is, it's always churning-with some businesses doing well and some doing not so well. We're hoping to get some good 'up ticks' along the way."

At least two veteran businesses of the downtown retail scene have experienced an increase in retail sales this year, despite the state's economic downturn.

Bill Golden of Golden Shoes said his store's sales are up 18 percent over their best year ever, which was in 2000. The store's second best sales year was 2005.

Golden said there are several factors which he feels contributed to increased sales over the last 16 months. Last October, the store was named "Small Retailer of the Year" by the Michigan Retailers Association. Then, last year's early snowfall brought more people to the area earlier, and in June, Bill and his brother, Craig, received the Downtown Traverse City Association's Lyle DeYoung Award, which recognizes businesses involved in community projects. This brought in people who would say, "we heard about you," Golden said.

He also credits regular advertising, two new shoe lines, tight inventory control and a "great" sales staff for the higher numbers.

Beth Guntzviller, co-owner of Miner's North, said so far their numbers are up from 2005. Factors contributing to the store's success, she said, include its location, a staff that's "always learning," the quality of work produced by two in-store goldsmiths, and advertising.

"The quality of people we have downtown, plus our city planners and Bryan Crough…it's a very viable downtown, with the (Hardy) parking deck, new restaurants and businesses," Guntzviller said. BN