Jennifer Shemak, center, carries a to a table during the busy lunch hour at Grumpy's.
You could call it an identity crisis of sorts.
On one side of Erie Street, the Standart and Bartley lofts stand as pinnacles of redevelopment in Toledo.
On the other side, the Berdan Building represents a different side of the city. The decrepit warehouse crumbles onto the sidewalk, and its broken or boarded-up windows evoke a feeling of desolation.
The evolution of Toledo’s downtown has created a fickle identity for the city’s center. Some parts, like the Warehouse District or Adams Street, are on their way to thriving. Others, however, are underutilized, vacant, or struggling to make a go if it.
And even in areas where businesses are doing well, work still needs to be done to turn downtown into a robust center of economic activity.
Dustin Hostetler, a Toledo resident and co-owner of Grumpy’s Deli, said the biggest change he’s noticed in the downtown is the number of people who live and work in it. The past 10 years have been transformational, he said.
Grumpy’s — a family-owned restaurant — has been a downtown staple since 1984.
“I lived in the Warehouse District for six years prior to my six years in the Old West End. So, I’ve lived in the downtown area for going on 12 years. I will say there’s been a huge shift in the amount of people that live in the downtown” he said. “When I used to walk my dog 10 years ago I wouldn’t bump into anybody, and I suspect now if I did I would see a lot of people.”
The new lofts and condo developments, along with buildings like the LaSalle and Commodore Perry apartments, are brimming with people.
According to a mid-year report by Reichle Klein Group, the multi-housing vacancy rate for the downtown was 4.4 percent. Reichle Klein is a commercial real estate company.
The Standart Lofts, which opened this year, already have a waiting list of more than 20 people. Kevin Prater, the building's developer and co-owner, said the response to the building has been amazing, and it's an indication people want to be downtown. The 75-unit building was full within a few months of opening.
"It's a unique downtown that's a little bit undiscovered," he said.
Still, downtown housing is reaching capacity and some basic needs aren’t being met by area businesses, Mr. Hostetler said. The need for a grocery store and pharmacy is paramount. Mr. Hostetler, who is a Type 1 Diabetic, said he’d relish a the chance to pick up medical supplies close to work.
Styist Jamye Speelman, left, cuts Kate Kelley's hair at Ahava Spa and Wellness Center.
“It comes up time and time again at the registers here; the need for a grocery store is huge, not only for downtown people, but people that live near downtown like the Old West End,” he said, adding that people want a store that’s within walking or biking distance.
Monat Market, the downtown’s last traditional grocery store, was open from 2005-08. Plans for stores have been proposed since that time, but none have come to fruition.
Finding space for a grocery store isn’t the issue — the Nicholas Building, the former Fiberglas Tower, and the Berdan and Feltman buildings are vacant. The Madison Building, also called the Nasby Building, is mostly vacant. Questions linger about whether a store could be sustained if one was opened in the downtown.
“We’re working on trying attract a market in the warehouse district neighborhood. It would be a designation market where people can buy their groceries and a general store concept,” said Diane Keil-Roe, president of the Toledo Warehouse District Association. “We have the momentum and the people down here for that kind of business to thrive. We feel strongly that’s the next phase of progress in the neighborhood.”
Harlan Reichle, president and chief executive officer of Reichle Klein, said about 35 percent to 40 percent of the downtown is either vacant or underutilized. Some buildings with businesses on the ground floor are vacant on the upper levels, he said.
The total square footage of vacant, occupied, and underutilized buildings in the downtown is not tracked by Reichle Klein and was not included in the 2011 Toledo Downtown Plan. The plan is the driving force behind much of the economic development in the city’s core.
“Any of the lofts above the retail spaces are full — they fill up relatively quickly,” said Bill Thomas, president of Downtown Toledo Development Corp. “That’s a real highlight that’s going on right now.”
Although downtown housing is in demand, the market for office and retail is tepid. Attracting a company with hundreds of employees to downtown Toledo is unlikely, Mr. Thomas said.
But he thinks a grocery store and pharmacy will eventually appear.
“The likelihood we’ll see something like that is very good. The timing could be a while yet,” he said. “It’s not something you could force.”
Co-owner Dustin Hostetler stands at the till cashing out customers at Grumpy's.
The vacant office and retail space could be filled with artists or other creative professionals, he said. Those developments, however, will take time and money pull off.
“You need someone that is an entrepreneur with a good plan and money to finance it to get it up and going,” Mr. Thomas said.
Location is especially key for businesses. Those near the city’s entertainment district or in the Uptown area tend to feed off each others' success, Mr. Thomas said.
Businesses located in the city’s business district, particularly near the intersection of Adams and Huron streets, tend to have a rough time keeping their doors open.
“That’s where attention hopefully is going to be focused to bring about some positive changes there to help the businesses,” said Paula Hicks-Hudson, the City Councilman who represents the downtown. “We need to strengthen the housing that is there.”
Stephanie Wandtke, a co-owner of Bleak House Coffee in the Spitzer Building, said businesses are starting to slowly find their footing in the area. The few that have opened their doors this year have been popular with customers, she said.
“It’s already starting to do that with the businesses that keep popping up. For instance, my coffee shop that just opened, Registry Bistro that just opened. We have the cute antiques shops that just opened up down Adams Street. … I feel like Adams street is starting to drift down this way a bit.”
The downtown is transitioning, and building a successful business isn’t a given. Katie Morgan-Lousky, owner of Ahava Spa and Wellness Center on South St. Clair Street, said her business only survived because of the client base it brought from its Monroe Street location when it moved in 2004.
Although more people live downtown and more businesses have moved there, it’s still an area of uncertainty, Ms. Morgan-Lousky said. Only time, and a commitment to a solid business plan, can ensure success.
“I had a 35-year-old clientele that I brought with me, as well as when I first launched the business I had other people that brought long term clientele to the downtown area. It’s beautiful down here. You can tell from our place, it’s a great place. It’s a great location.
Contact Kris Turner at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6103.