Old Town: Special charm but empty storefronts. What’s next?

TRAVERSE CITY – It's been a challenging year for the block of Old Town on Union between 7th and 8th streets.

T Moeggenberg Professional Menswear closed in early November after 13 years. Across the street, specialty maternity/infant shop Preggers will close by mid-December. Look north toward Front Street on the same block, and your eye will catch two other vacant storefronts.

"We have never had this many vacancies in Old Town in 30 years," says property owner Gary Hondorp. Since 1980, Hondorp has owned the 2,400 square-foot building at 417 S. Union that will be empty when Preggers vacates.

"It's a little scary," Hondorp says. "But I blame it mostly on the economy, not the location. I've had only six weeks of vacancy (in the Preggers building) in the last 17 years."

Kevin Graves, president of Cedar Creek Interiors next door, is optimistic that something good is going to happen with these empty spots. So far they haven't affected his business.

"There used to be a lot more retail activity," he says, having been in business for 15 years in Old Town. "The past eight years, that started going away. Old Town has become a place for destination stores." For Cedar Creek, the market started to change four years ago. "We used to do a huge walk-in business," he says. "Now, everything is special ordered, and we do a lot more design work."

While Graves says, "even if offices come, it's still people," both he and Hondorp prefer to see specialized retail take root.

Office vs. Retail

Add Cindy Eckler to the "more retail" camp. She has owned Hibbard's Flowers at the corner of Union and 8th Street since August 2007, though it had operated for a long time one block north.

"You don't go shopping at a dentist," she says, adding that she would happily welcome more restaurants. "Food is a good draw."

Getting the right retail mix can make all the difference. "There is absolutely no reason this section of Traverse City has anything to do with the closings and turnovers," says Tim Moeggenberg, who recently closed the Old Town menswear shop. "It is no longer a retail-exclusive part of town … but certain types of retailing can certainly make waves here."

Downtown Development Authority Acting Executive Director Rob Bacigalupi recognizes that the block is in transition, but building in more density throughout the entire Old Town district "gets more feet on the street."

"There is still a gap between Old Town and Front Street that frustrates us, but every year it gets better," Bacigalupi says.

While Front Street is a "tourist and regional shopping district," Old Town is a "neighborhood commercial district," he explains, including businesses that specifically serve the surrounding residential areas. That said, as the State Theatre and new restaurants have reinvigorated life on Front, the Old Town Playhouse and nearby restaurants are critical to Old Town.

"The driver is definitely the dining and entertainment category," says Bacigalupi. "And obviously we prefer retail on the ground floor."

If You Build It, They Will Park

Come September, Old Town will have its public parking deck. But, these first weeks of construction have been hard on neighboring businesses. Maxbauer's Specialty Meat Market experienced a 20 percent drop-off in business because of parking confusion, owner Mike Deering says. He even emailed a parking map to customers to help alleviate the problem."Once they get here, 99 percent of the time there is a place to park," he says of the lot behind the store. Maxbauer's has 14 spaces assigned to it and hasn't lost any due to the construction, but different access to the lot confused some of his regulars.

Though the first month of deck construction was "the worst period with the most impact," the DDA's Bacigalupi says the first level of the parking deck was designed with input from the neighboring businesses: It is flat to the ground, a veritable extension of the existing parking lot behind the east side businesses.

Deering says he has been supportive of the deck all along, and the eventual benefits to the tax base and foot traffic. In the meantime, he's enjoying his new lunchtime crowd-construction workers.

At the corner of 8th Street and Union, the AT&T store hasn't had a problem. Manager Greg Woodworth says while the number of assigned spots has been reduced by half due to deck construction, he hasn't heard any customer complaints.

"It hasn't affected us as much as we thought it would," he says.

Some landlords, however, are cutting a deal. Graves at Cedar Creek says his landlord approached him with a rent reduction during this construction period.

And even though Moeggenberg doesn't have a retail business to worry about anymore, he sees all positives with the deck.

"The long-term forecast for Old Town is bright with the deck's finished presence," he says. "It will have a massive impact on convenient customer parking availability … it will be an amazing transformation, I guarantee." BN