What’s The Downtown Retail ‘Tipping Point?’

Brent Finnegan -- February 1st, 2011

The idea of mixed-use, high density living, where people reside in apartments over restaurants and retail shops, is appealing to many residents of downtown Harrisonburg. But while the apartments are occupied, many of the commercial spaces on the street level remain vacant.

Mixed use buildings line Market St. Photo by luraybell

Mixed use buildings line Market Street. Photo by luraybell (hburgnews Flickr group)

Last week Doug Manners reported in the Daily News-Record on the empty retail spaces in downtown Harrisonburg, such as Urban Exchange and the Colonnade. So far, only Comcast Spotlight, the advertising sales division of Comcast Cable, has set up shop below the apartments at Urban Exchange.

George Overstreet is director of the Center for Growth Enterprises at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. He said a certain population density is necessary before such projects become successful.

“You’ve got to get to the tipping point,” Overstreet said. “You’ve got to get enough people living down there before the retail will be successful.” [...]

Notwithstanding the economic downturn, [downtown developer Barry] Kelley noted that the new commercial space – about 36,000 square feet between Urban Exchange and the Colonnade – probably arrived a bit too soon for Harrisonburg.

“You have to have the density,” Kelley said. “That’s part of the equation. You need more people downtown and more residential space.”

Urban Exchange in Harrisonburg. Photo by Randy Lowery.

Urban Exchange in Harrisonburg. Photo by Randy Lowery. (hburgnews Flickr group)

I asked two retail shop owners downtown what they think of the prospects of retail making a comeback in downtown Harrisonburg.

Miranda Lancaster owns and operates The Yellow Button, a “fashion-forward” clothing boutique on the corner of Bruce and Main. “I really believe that we are almost there in terms of retail,” Lancaster wrote. “Ten Thousand Villages opens [next to The Yellow Button] on Monday, and I really think that they will help out (since they are a nationally known chain).” She continued:

It has been a slow process, but I think that people are starting to realize what downtown has to offer. Social Networks (like Facebook) have really helped spread the word and increase my business, but word of mouth and wonderfully loyal customers are really what has made The Yellow Button so successful.

The Yellow Button recently expanded (knocked out a wall and remodeled) to include more space for women’s shoes and boots.

Brandon Amstutz, owner of Downtown Fine Furniture isn’t quite as optimistic, but says that if the lease agreements worked on a merit system, it would encourage more businesses to move downtown:

I’d like to see property owners lease on a percentage of sales basis downtown. If you succeed in their location than so do they. They keep a longer term tenant while keeping store fronts full downtown. Your rent is based upon your sales. Rent increases as sales increase. However, if sales decrease than so does rent.

After all rent is a commodity to begin with. The property owners downtown should push that idea and just you watch retailers take another look at downtown. This idea works at malls for the most part.

What do you think it will take to reach a “tipping point” for retail stores in downtown Harrisonburg?

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