December 4, 2017

Downtown’s expanding retail scene awaits a sales, traffic uptick

Photo | Bill Morgan
Photo | Bill Morgan
Kevin Tos (above and featured on the cover) opened his Gyro & Kabob House restaurant downtown earlier this year. He says he’s yet to see much UConn traffic.
Photo | Bill Morgan
Entrepreneurs Laura Jean Keever and Mary Kate Doyle overcame skepticism and chose downtown for their third WIP Fitness in the Hartford area.
Photo | Bill Morgan
Camera Bar owner Richard Goldenthal (right) and son, Aaron, in their Asylum Street shop.

Anticipation for a sales boost was palpable among many of downtown Hartford's owner-operators of shops, restaurants and service providers prior to the debut of UConn's relocated campus to Front Street.

But in the months since the campus' formal opening Aug. 23, there are signs the expected ramp-up hasn't hit all downtown merchants evenly — if at all.

While several small shops, like Dhaba Wala Indian Restaurant and the Parlor 55 barber shop, both in the Asylum Street retail annex attached to the 777 Main apartment tower, have opened, and two more are planned on nearby Pratt Street, at least two downtown merchants have shut their doors.

Nixs seafood restaurant, one of a half-dozen eateries occupying the Front Street retail development, abruptly closed recently amid an ongoing tenant-landlord dispute. French-American restaurant Harlan Brasserie, which opened in the newly renovated Goodwin Hotel in May, also recently closed. Hartford Sweat, housed inside the former 777 Main St. bank building, shut its doors recently, but reopened shortly thereafter.

Despite being hopeful, remaining merchants said the expected boost in customer traffic and sales from UConn's presence will take more time to fully materialize. Until that happens, downtown retailers are reporting mixed experiences.

The added foot traffic from spring-summertime baseball at Dunkin' Donuts Park and the addition of new residents downtown has boosted some bars and restaurants, but many center-city streets are still dotted with empty storefronts.

At the corner of Main and Pratt streets, Massachusetts entrepreneur Kevin Tos opened last spring his first Connecticut eatery, Gyro & Kabob House, at 22 Pratt St., next door to Sorella Restaurant. But lunch-dinner dine-in and takeout traffic has yet to meet his projections.

"I was expecting more customers with UConn moving in and more apartments,'' Tos said.

His volume shortfall, however, hasn't stopped other retailers from weighing or establishing downtown Hartford locations.

Farmington commercial broker Eric Amodio said his brokerage has witnessed more interest from tenants about locating in the center city.

"It was pretty quiet a year ago,'' said Amodio, managing partner of Amodio & Co. Real Estate. "Now we're getting a couple of calls a week.''

According to Jennifer Cassidy, merchant coordinator for Business for Downtown Hartford, an advocate for center-city businesses and merchants, and others knowledgeable about downtown's merchant mix, at least two new retail establishments — Night Sky Hookah Lounge and Painting With A Twist wine bar — are looking to open downtown soon.

In addition, The Russell, a bar-restaurant at Pratt and Trumbull streets, plans to turn vacant space next door into a Caribbean meals-to-go counter.

The wine bar is eyeing storefront space at 55 Pratt St. that once housed a "pop-up'' sales outlet for downtown fashion retailer Morneault's Stackpole Moore Tryon.

At 95 Pratt St., Night Sky's sponsors have applied to the city to open a smoking parlor, where food and beverages would be served, said Amodio, who is Night Sky's lease broker.

Juan Ramos of East Hartford said he and a business partner have been plotting their hookah venture for three years and plan to open Night Sky by New Year's Eve, at the earliest. Ramos said they are drawn to downtown's rising resident population, UConn's campus opening and event activity at the XL Center.

"Downtown is missing a lot when it comes to a variety of venues and businesses,'' he said.

The proposed hookah lounge would be next door to The Tobacco Shop, 89 Pratt St., another longtime downtown retail fixture. Owner Gerald "Gerry" Grate, who is past president of Business for Downtown Hartford, said he welcomes any new retail, including a hookah lounge, to Pratt Street or anywhere else downtown.

Despite noticing more young people walking downtown's streets, Grate said that has not yet translated to more business for his shop. Trinity College, too, is preparing to open a campus downtown.

"It's a wee bit early for any residuals from opening UConn's campus,'' Grate said.

Other merchants trying out new center-city spaces include WIP Fitness, which opened Aug. 8 at 55 Pratt St.

Co-founder Mary Kate Doyle said she chose Hartford for WIP's third location after rejecting several potential suburban spots. WIP is also in Avon and West Hartford.

Doyle said she and business partner Laura Jean Keever made their choice after spending six weeks walking all over downtown several times, talking to city and state development officials, apartment and retail landlords, retail tenants and potential WIP clients.

"We sort of found a different community,'' Doyle said, than the one cast in myth as a neighborhood that is out of the way, shuts down early and lacks residential foot traffic.

They're happy with their downtown Hartford choice so far, Doyle said, noting many of her suburban fitness clients find it more convenient to use the downtown location before or after work.

"We've had more traction opening this space than any of our others,'' she said.

Waiting for critical mass

With nearly 1,000 new apartment units opened downtown in recent years, and hundreds more in the pipeline to be built, it may be too early for all downtown merchants to realize the benefits of a growing urban population, observers said.

Don Chapman, the city's director of small business and community development, said the city is sensitive to those concerns and noted there may be reason for optimism.

A 2012 housing study the city funded, Chapman said, determined that Hartford could expect, based on the experience of housing ramp-ups in U.S. cities of similar size, to see a positive merchant impact once the new apartments count hits 7,500.

With an average of 1.8 residents per unit, that would mean nearly 15,000 more people living downtown who also need food, drink, entertainment, medical services, among other things, Chapman said.

"Until we hit that critical mass,'' he said, "it's going to be difficult for small businesses to see the difference.''

BFDH's Cassidy said many of her members were not expecting to see an immediate traffic boost from UConn's debut. However, over time they do expect more UConn students, faculty and staff to spend more time — and money — away from Front Street.

And while Hartford waits for that critical mass, there are more people living downtown, including Chris Dudanowicz, 22, who recently moved from New Britain to downtown's Hartford ArtSpace building.

Dudanowicz, a Central Connecticut State University grad and visual artist who works as an events coordinator for Upward Hartford in the Stilts Building, 20 Church St., said the fact that he has to pay more to live in Hartford is offset by the city's list of dining, shopping and leisure options.

While getting a haircut at Parlor 55, Dudanowicz said he typically grabs groceries at Greenway Market next door. He also has grown fond of Dhaba Walla.

"It's like Chipotle for Indian food,'' he said, comparing it to the Mexican fast-food chain.

Though not a baseball fan, Dudanowicz said he attended a couple of Yard Goats baseball games at Dunkin' Donuts Park.

Designated retail zone

Downtown merchant Richard Goldenthal has been a fixture on Asylum Street since he acquired Camera Bar in 1985 from its previous owner, who opened it downtown in 1956. Most of his traffic flows from word of mouth despite the thousands Goldenthal said he spends annually on advertising.

He said independent retailers like his are better suited to being housed downtown because they collectively can draw upon each other's customer bases for sales.

Asked about the idea posed by some downtown retailers for a designated retail zone in which only locally based or owned shops and service centers could be housed, he championed the concept. Goldenthal said a local merchant corridor extending from Union Station eastward to the riverfront could be valuable.

Chapman, the city's community-business liaison, agreed that a dedicated retail zone may be worth considering.

"I'll listen to anything, and I'm sure the mayor will listen to any proposal they put forward,'' Chapman said.

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