Thursday, July 21, 2011

100 Block, Unarmed Merchants and What's What, Part Two

Gorgeous, hand-crafted mirror from Unarmed Merchants: $18
Yesterday's post regarding the closing of Unarmed Merchants on the 100 block elicited several comments which then led to a post on Spiniffy by Andrea, who often comments on Stuck Inside of Knoxville. Her post, in turn, generated an agreeing comment from yet another blogger. Several things about this provocative elaboration prompt me to respond. I appreciate the additional thoughts. Andrea lives on the 100 Block and knows the residents there much better than me, obviously, and I appreciate her input.

Her original comment stated in part:

"I live on 100 Block and I’ve been in Unarmed Merchants . . . it was way overpriced to what the residents on this end of the city can afford. And the products aren’t that different from what you can find at other shops in downtown. And it seems like they cater to an older demographic . . . when businesses open up here, they need to keep in mind that the 100 Block is full of young professionals and college students. Typically people without a lot of money, who like to stay up late, and who like to go out to eat or hang out in bars . . . Those are the types of businesses we need on 100 Block. More late night restaurants and bars/coffee shops and younger, funkier retail . . ."

Interestingly, Andrea echoed some of what I heard from the person I spoke to in the store: The 100 block residents are often just starting out and would have a hard time buying some of what the store has to offer, which is why they had hoped for more foot traffic. I disagree in some respects, however. I don't think the prices were that much different than many other downtown stores and I think what Aaron was trying to do was offer quality products which would be different than what one might find at Target or World Market as Andrea later mentioned in her post.

There is a basic dilemma at work here: Life in an urban environment is more expensive. Any small store not owned by a chain cannot get the deals from vendors that Walmart or Target or Kroger can get. So, to open up a small store in an urban environment, retailers have to charge more because they pay more and deal in much smaller volume, meaning they have to make more off of each purchase.

The only ways that I see for urban residents to avoid paying this higher price is to have Target come downtown or to drive to Target in the suburbs. What happens in each case? In the first we have a bunch of chain stores downtown that take the soul out of the place. We look like any other suburban shopping center. Didn't we move downtown because we wanted something different?

What if we live here, but drive out to get our groceries, clothes and furnishings? Then businesses won't come downtown and eventually neither will new residents. The city will become the ghost town it was twenty years ago.

Both Andrea and another commenter suggested more bars and other places to hang out late at night, but I wonder, how many bars can the downtown population support? On Gay Street we have Sapphire, Downtown Brewery and a rumor of another coming across the street. On the Square we have Preservation Pub and Oodles Wine Bar. The Old City, which is only a block from the 100 Block already has seven bars, a pub, a wine bar and an additional bar to open soon. Bars also do little to attract people during the day or on many weekday nights. Can a successful portion of the city be based on weekend nights? Also, how can people who have such a small amount of money afford to much spend very many nights out at bars? It's not cheap to pay cover charges and drink.

Andrea has developed a great list of potential businesses that go beyond bars. I'll suggest that you go to her blog to read the complete list. I'd love to see many of the same businesses she wants on the 100 Block in any part of downtown. It seems likely they would be successful. I do maintain what I said at the beginning, however: these things would be more expensive in a city. A bakery, bagel shop, butcher shop or cheese shop would be more expensive than a suburban counter-part. Why would residents of the 100 Block not simply drive to Walmart to get cheaper versions of all these items?

The reason I try to spend as many of my dollars in the city as possible is because I know each of the businesses improves my quality of life downtown. These people took a risk so a service or product I would otherwise have to drive to get is available to me in my neighborhood. Bars and restaurants are great, but we need clothes, art, food, books, electronics, hardware and much more. The only way we get it is if we support the people who provide it.

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At July 21, 2011 at 8:41 AM , Anonymous Greg said...

Retailers downtown are going to struggle. There just isn't enough population within walking distance to support them. And without a big anchor retailer of some kind as a lure, people living outside of downtown will rarely drive there to shop.

Add another 5000 downtown residents and retailing would have a better shot at success. If you could figure out a way to get the UT students from the campus to downtown to shop it would be a big boost ... which ties in with Andrea's comment on the shops they want.

At July 21, 2011 at 8:59 AM , Blogger tthurman said...

"If you could figure out a way to get the UT students from the campus to downtown to shop it would be a big boost ..."

Unfortunately, this requires crossing death alley, or taking the ever so inconvenient, one and only safe cross over method. This of course could be avoided by getting in the car and driving from campus to downtown, but who wants to do that, plus then there is a parking issue.

At July 21, 2011 at 9:31 AM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Greg is certainly right to a degree about the number of residents downtown. It's such a difficult chicken and egg question - will they move downtown without suitable retail and will retail come before they do? One encouraging sign is that everything I've read recently indicates the population is still growing and may be escalating. I do think many UT students are already hanging out downtown. As per Andrea's point, I'm not sure how much economic impact they bring to the table.

At July 21, 2011 at 10:05 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the biggest draw to downtown is the bars, restaurants and music that tend to draw people in a social setting. People like being where other people are. The demand is high enough that I think things will continue to improve, at a steady pace. As far as retail goes, the next step is to get a well known retailer that doesnt have a presence in other parts of knoxville to set up shop. There isnt currently a name to attract the west town mall crowd to shop downtown (something they cant find in their own parts of town). Once people start coming downtown with the shopping mindset, the small shops will get some exposure due to foot traffic. Right now they are just coming to eat and drink at night, not the mindset to browse shops. In my opinion, the biggest thing lacking in downtown is better recreational access to the river. A riverfront park with a nice walkway/bike path would be a really nice addition.

At July 21, 2011 at 10:22 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

to add to my above post, urban outfitters is a perfect example of the type of store needed. Hopefully they can work something out.

At July 21, 2011 at 11:19 AM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

I can't argue with much of what you've said, here. Maybe the Kress Building or the Penny's Building could attract a significant retailer like you mention. The river connection would be huge. Right now it is possible to come to Knoxville for a convention, walk around downtown and never know we have a river.

At July 21, 2011 at 11:34 AM , Anonymous Greg said...

Mast General Store is prospering downtown, despite the chicken-or-egg population problem. They seem to attract tourists, which might be the key.

I agree with Anonymous about Urban Outfitters. They're in downtown locations in Memphis and Nashville. A local entrepreneur's version of H&M or Zara could succeed also, and would be a real anchor for clothes shoppers downtown. They'd attract the tourist shoppers too.

At July 21, 2011 at 11:35 AM , Anonymous Art said...

I'm glad someone else brought up the issue of riverfront access, as I usually get a "huh? oh yeah" when I mention it to most folks. Knoxville is a city with a river flowing through it--why do we keep ignoring it as a major resource for tourism and recreation? Chattanooga doesn't ignore it, and it's the same river. San Antonio has made a big deal of their little one.

First, the access--it isn't really obvious to the visitor how one gets there by foot!
Second, other than Calhouns (a useless establishment for me), shouldn't there be a variety of retail and dining opportunities.

At July 21, 2011 at 11:38 AM , Anonymous Greg said...

PS - college students might not spend a lot per person, but in aggregate you're talking about big numbers.

At July 21, 2011 at 12:28 PM , Anonymous Willers said...

It is a fallacy that sheer population determines a retailer's success in downtown. As mentioned, Mast is evidence of that. What does determine success in downtown is uniqueness, need, and appearance. The empty slots that I see (other than grocery) are:

--real quality ethnic restaurants, such as Indian
--a healthy, artisan bakery/cafe that does retail as well as bulk. Imagine the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through downtown at 7am! (or anytime for that matter) If we have learned anything from FoodTV, it is that these types of establishments become attractions for visitors.
--a couple more "better" quality restaurants. Market Square is now packed with average quality, casual. Need some that are "occasion" places.
--Urban Outfitters would have been perfect as a retailers that would attract the 20,000 who live just to the west. And find a way to get them there and back quickly. Oooh, light rail anyone? (this would serve the athletic crowds nicely as well.)
--And YES, Knoxville does have a river. Let's use it.

At July 21, 2011 at 2:28 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Good comments, all. I agree about Mast - it's the most successful of their stores. I wasn't crazy about the Urban Outfitters idea, but maybe I was wrong. Fresh baked bread is a great idea and it is creeping into downtown. Harry's on the very same 100 block does some major baking and Just Ripe on Union Avenue carries their bread and Rick's bread (Rick is a regular at the Farmer's Market). I've been told true "light" rail may be a problem for us, but we have tracks that go the length of the city, so I wish we would use them.

At July 21, 2011 at 3:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure if Knoxville is quite to the point of light rail, but it is something that I hope the city is at least thinking about once the population downtown would support it. One of the major problems (same as Atlanta) is that most people commute suburb to suburb for work, so making an effective transit program for them is very difficult. If lots of jobs move downtown, then the transit idea becomes much more feasible. Express buses could run from the burbs on bus only lanes along 40/75 and light rail (or the cheaper option of buses) could move them around once they get in town. As long as buses dont have to sit in traffic, its actually a better option for near future.

Also, a good way to have good ethnic food downtown would be food trucks. Bahn mi, BBQ and loads of other options are easy to prep and serve out of a truck. This would allow them to take advantage of the peak times with relatively low overhead. Plus, they could move somewhere closer to campus and do great business on gamedays, concerts, festivals etc

At July 21, 2011 at 6:12 PM , Anonymous Willers said...

When I mentioned light rail, I was specifically referring to a UT to Downtown area route rather than a full-blown system. The number and type of passengers on such a route is immediately quantifiable and predictable. In addition to moving students and faculty between the two areas, it would also have a major effect on the athletic crowds.

Rail also has the advantage of being a possible attraction in itself if it is rapid, interesting, and fun to ride.

I haven't bought into the food truck phenomenon yet, particularly for a small downtown area. There is a lot of casual food already. However, I would love an Indian restaurant.

At July 21, 2011 at 6:41 PM , Blogger Andrea said...

Urban Guy, I am really enjoying the conversation here. Lots of great comments and ideas floating around. I especially love the idea of food trucks, which I mentioned in my blog a while ago, and the light rail idea. My favorite part of Disney World is the monorail system they have between the parks and I daydream about a monorail system in Knoxville going from downtown to UT and maybe a few of the older, established neighborhoods like Fourth & Gill and Historic North Knoxville.

Anyway, I am going to think about your post and write a corresponding blog. But the main points I think that need to be considered: College students and young professionals have very different priorities with their finances. They pay rent, utilities, car payments, school debt, travel, and the majority of what is leftover goes to socializing. Bars and restaurants provide venues for socializing, whereas a shop like Unarmed Merchants definitely does not. And where they may think nothing of dropping $50 in one night at a bar or club, they will balk at spending $50 on items in a shop that they can get cheaper elsewhere. But I'll go into more detail about that on my blog. I'll try to get it up sometime this evening or tomorrow.

At July 21, 2011 at 8:11 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

I think we all agree on a large amount of issues: We'd all like to see mass transit work better in downtown and to connecting points outside the city, we'd all like to see a wider variety of (particularly ethnic) restaurants. As for priorities of spending money, I see what you are saying, Andrea. I wonder how those priorities would appply to fresh, local cheeses and meats if less expensive alternatives were available at Kroger. Just wondering. I'll look forward to your next post.

At December 9, 2011 at 11:24 AM , Anonymous pharmacy said...

I agree with Andrea above me 'cos it was an interesting conversation and I am sure that it's going to be an important idea that regarding food trucks.


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