Friday, October 8, 2010

Existing businesses want to keep development on track

By Joy Campbell
Exerpt from Greater Owensboro Business Publication - Fourth Quarter 2010

New eateries, a libation emporium, a photo studio, gift shops — the list of businesses opening in downtown Owensboro is continuing to grow. And the explosion of new retail and restaurant establishments is happening while the city is still on the cusp of its $79.4 million renovation. The new business owners are reporting fast starts to their investments, and they are optimistic about the future as downtown starts to take its new shape. “It has been everything I expected it to be — fantastic,” said Samantha Ellison, co-owner of Bee Bop’s, a ‘50s-themed diner at 122 West Second St. The diner opened May 6 — just as the International Bar-B-Q Festival was bringing thousands of visitors downtown. Ellison said she chose Owensboro because it reminded her of a happy childhood experience. She lived in a town not so different from Owensboro, except it had cobblestone streets downtown. “My mother took me to Woolworth’s, and we got a Limeade at the counter,” she said. Bee Bop’s has a 32-foot counter with stools and service behind the counter. Ellison is pleased with the customer feedback she’s getting. “I think we have a great concept going here,” she said. “We’ve tweaked the menu to fit the downtown crowd.” Most recently, she added soups to accommodate her customers. “I wish I had more seats — that’s a good thing,” Ellison said. As she fast-forwards four to five years, she sees 10 Bee Bop’s up and running. “The next one will definitely be in Bowling Green,” Ellison said. “Then maybe Evansville.” She hasn’t ruled out a second location on Kentucky 54, but she wants to see what happens when the new hospital opens in east Daviess County. Bee Bop’s has 17 employees. Carol Reader, owner of “C-ing” Polkadots, one of downtown’s newest shops, has a similar success story. She opened May 10, the Monday following the barbecue festival. “I can’t believe the number of people who come back into the store and bring their out-of-town guests to show it off,” Reader said. “The last two weeks have been the best yet.” Reader is a lifelong Owensboro resident and has great memories of shopping at stores, including McAtee’s and Ferrell’s, when downtown was vibrant. “Seeing downtown revitalized is so important,” she said. “I’m praying and hoping that it will be developed.” Carol and Scott Reader own several downtown buildings. “I wanted my own shop, and I felt the Lord wanted me to do this,” she said. The building has been totally renovated. She has made good use of the space with gift items, a children’s boutique and gallery, original art, home decor, custom gift baskets and custom framing, goodie baskets, sculptures — a variety — elegantly displayed on two floors. “We offer free gift wrapping and free local delivery, and that has been well-received,” she said. “We’re very service-oriented.” The shop also sells organic coffees and lattes and customers can sample the drinks and goodies. Reader sees a bright future for downtown and “C-ing” Polkadots. “I think when the downtown renovation is done, it will get better,” she said. “The first thing we will do when we can is expand on the back.” When the business starts to profit, she expects to use the funds to finance mission work. Other new businesses that have opened downtown recently are Gambrinus Libation Emporium at 116 West Second St.; Second Street Pub, 119 East Second St. And other launches are expected. Al Gendek, co-owner of Diamond Delights Cafe & Bakery, is gearing up to open that shop at 222 Allen St. He and his wife Marva are moving their well-established business from downtown Henderson. The decision to relocate the 12-year-old company to Owensboro’s downtown district speaks of the couple’s high expectations for the area. The Gendeks did their homework — researching how existing downtown businesses are faring and scouting an open building. Al Gendek told the Messenger-Inquirer last month that he had his eye on the 110-year-old structure for nearly a year before signing a lease with owner Leo Portaluppi. Portaluppi, who has two City Subs & Salads shops in Owensboro, was eyeing a third location when he bought the Allen Street building at auction in June. The Gendeks see the investments the city and county have made in developing its core as a strong signal for the future. They also have ties to Owensboro, having lived in the city from 1974 until the mid-1980s. Katherine Taylor, an Owensboro native, is renovating the space at 412 East Second St. for Studio Slant, an art gallery and hand-made gifts boutique. The gallery will open in October with a show of work by eastern Kentucky artist John Haywood. Haywood’s paintings spotlight the stereotypes of Appalachia. “Owensboro doesn’t currently have a gallery with rotating shows by well-known artists where every piece is for sale,” said Taylor. Other artists slated to offer their work for sale at Studio Slant include Owensboro native and glass artist Brook Forrest White and Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, a fiber artist who is also a tenured full professor of fine art at the University of Kentucky. The gallery’s hand-made gift items will include a custom blended spa line by Red Leaf and jewelry by local designer Paula Canant. Taylor knew downtown was the right place to open her gallery. “I only looked for space in the downtown area because I love the growth that is going on right now. Downtown is ‘happening’ and I want to be part of it,” she said.

Keep the momentum going

Owensboro’s planned redevelopment includes a new events center and hotel and riverfront improvements. The city has received $37.6 million in federal funds to build a river wall and has contributed about $4 million in local funds to that project. The redevelopment also will bring changes in traffic patterns, with Second and Fourth streets turning into two-way. Restaurateur George Skiadas makes no secret that he’s excited about the potential for downtown Owensboro. “The future is limited only by our imagination,” said Skiadas, who owns the Famous Bistro, 102 West Second St. “The atmosphere is so positive downtown now.” Skiadas just returned from a trip to St. Louis where he talked to a restaurant manager in the west-central section of the city. “The things we’re creating here and the issues we have here — they went through — and their results were phenomenal,” Skiadas said. Some of the common issues are filling empty stores, making downtown pedestrian-friendly, improving the riverfront and creating a service-friendly atmosphere. “They’ve been doing this for 20 years with success,” Skiadas said. “That was a nice affirmation of our efforts here.” Skiadas said he also picked up a magazine at the hotel where he stayed in St. Louis that had a story detailing the commitments officials had to make to avoid the city’s decline. “That is a much larger scale, but the issues were similar,” he said. “We’re already seeing some results here with new businesses opening that are creating that atmosphere we need.” Skiadas wants to see even more eateries open. “The more, the merrier,” he said. “In St. Louis, it was one restaurant after another, yet it took us a half-hour to find a table. That’s a good situation to have.” Skiadas and Ellison touted the efforts of We Are Downtown, a downtown business group. “The downtown businesses have really supported us,” Ellison said. “We go to the We Are Downtown meetings, and they are very positive.” Skiadas said the business group has advanced the interests of downtown. Rosemary and Larry Conder have been systematically adding to their investment in downtown Owensboro. They now own six properties — all historic buildings. The couple started their own downtown development in 2007 when they bought The Gallery at 107 East Second St. and renamed it The Crowne at 107. Then they bought the building at 109 East Second Street that is now The Creme Coffee House. In 2009, they purchased the Smith-Werner Building which now houses Gambrinus and Bee Bop’s and can handle another business. They also have created four apartments on the second floor. They bought the property at 221 St. Ann last year. Their most recent investment is two buildings at 101 and 103 West Third St. The purchase prices and renovations at three of the sites has tipped their total investment past $2 million. This summer when the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce named the Conders 2010 Entrepreneurs of the Year, both Conders said the city’s and county’s development plan spurred them to move forward with their downtown plans. And they’re not finished yet. Larry Conder said last month the couple is considering building a replica of the Bank of Commerce on the southeast corner of Second and St. Ann streets. Daviess Fiscal Court owns the site — a parking lot next to Bee Bop’s. “Our expectations can be influenced by what happens in Owensboro in the next six months,” Larry Conder said in reference to the November election and subsequent determination of the makeup of the Owensboro City Commission and Daviess Fiscal Court. Downtown development efforts are “rolling downhill pretty fast,” he said.
But for all of the work that has been done, there is still a significant amount of infra-structure left to build and traffic changes left to implement, Conder said. And people, by nature, are impatient. They have seen the buildings come down, but none go up. “Changes in government officials and seeing the buildings go up are the biggest things to look for,” he said. “We need to see those things play out.” Conder would like to see both public and private investment in the works — especially more from the private sector. “I would like to see some outside investors coming in; that’s a telling sign,” he said.