Can a small city with a busy corporate corridor share the wealth with its downtown businesses and avoid having shuttered storefronts and vacant buildings?
Just ask Canal Winchester, whose city core occupancy rate is 90 to 100 percent.
On Gender Road, there is a mix of big box stores, fast food chain restaurants, nationally-known retail establishments, and service providers. In the historic downtown, when customers visit a store they are likely to be greeted by the business owner or a member of their family.
"Despite the last several years being filled with large retail development, our downtown has continued to evolve," said Destination Canal Winchester Executive Director Bruce Jarvis. "Buildings have been repurposed for other uses and it’s what’s working. A former drug store is being used as a boutique. We have a full service downtown where you can buy a new watch, get lunch, and see a doctor."
Jarvis said sometimes it is trial and error and some businesses prove to be more popular than others.
"But what’s going on here is the same thing that has been going on for decades," said Jarvis. "The economy has had an affect, too, but in a non-direct way. Winchester has weathered this pretty well."
According to Mayor Mike Ebert, about 50 to 60 years ago a portion of West Waterloo, South High and East Columbus streets were all part of U.S. Route 33. Businesses on the route through town in those days thrived on the traffic going to and from Columbus and Lancaster.
"Today, U.S. 33 bypasses our downtown and the flow and type of traffic has changed," said Ebert. "Like most small downtown areas we do not have, by design, big box stores that draw from a wide area, but downtown Canal Winchester still has a few businesses that have been here for decades."
Attracting and retaining businesses in the heart of the city is the result of a combination of factors, such as square footage rental rates lower than the surrounding area, which Jarvis said makes it possible for small, independent operations to stay in business and remain competitive.
Ebert said it is a challenge to generate customers and provide parking for easy access, but the city is trying to help with both issues by first creating and maintaining good public parking areas within reasonable walking distance to all downtown businesses and by planning special downtown events that attract potential shoppers, such as the farmer’s market, Christmas in the Village, and Art in the Park.
According to Development Director Lucas Haire, nine new businesses opened in Canal Winchester in 2011 and the city continues to follow a comprehensive downtown revitalization strategy adopted in January 2002.
"Along with stakeholders like Destination Canal Winchester and the Chamber of Commerce, we have been able to accomplish quite a few of the recommendations set forth in the plan," said Haire. "Some examples are the construction of Stradley Place, which is now a community gathering place in the heart of Old Town programmed with special events throughout the year."
Haire said these events turn into a huge draw with attendees coming from all over the central Ohio area.
"This allows these consumers to be introduced to the small, locally owned businesses that make up High Street, and hopefully they will return to shop or dine in these establishments outside of special event times," said Haire.
According to Haire, the city’s downtown has remained successful even with the establishment of the Gender Road retail area by offering unique and different shopping experiences for customers in comparison to those found in most suburban shopping areas.
"It is an authentic experience in a historic downtown area," said Haire. "The city and our volunteer Landmarks Commission put a lot of work into protecting the architecture of the area to ensure that the heritage of the community is always showcased and that the area will remain a unique and functional destination district."