by Pia K. Hansen

When River Park Square opened its doors, shoppers came calling from afar. The new mall brought national retailers such as Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Ann Taylor and Abercrombie & amp; Fitch to Spokane for the first time, and some of those stores reported record sales right off the bat.

Even though the road toward the grand opening wasn't all lined with bright balloons -- there was some controversy over land deals and a certain parking garage as well -- many said River Park Square, funded in part with public money, was the magic potion downtown needed.

Today, more than three years after the mall reopened, River Park Square is 90 percent occupied, according to its owners, but the same can't be said about the rest of downtown.

While there are many positive signs around downtown -- the Davenport, the convention center expansion, the Catacombs and the RailSide Center, the rehabilitation of the American Legion Building (see this week's Last Word, page 59), and the construction of a new nightclub to be known as the Big Easy, to name a few -- there are many empty spaces on the street and skywalk levels.

Of course there are many factors keeping the edges of downtown from prospering the way parts of Main Street seem to be -- from the weak national economy to the proliferation of shopping options in the Valley and on the North Side.

Nonetheless, many storefronts, both large and small, have been vacant for years and are showing no signs of filling up soon.

On Riverside, there's the old Lamonts building, and across from River Park Square is the Burlington Coat Factory building, emptied after the retailer moved to the North Side.

"We are analyzing all sorts of different options for that building, but there are no concrete plans or proposals," says Betsy Cowles, president of River Park Square and of the companies that own the Burlington Coat Factory building. "Because of its location right next to River Park Square, what it becomes is very important to that part of downtown."

There are lots of open small storefronts, too, from the old Hamer's store on Riverside to the old Fort Spokane Brewery across from Riverfront Park.

With shop owners who can't afford Main Street rents waiting for the River Park Square shoppers to migrate to Sprague, First and beyond, some have found it increasingly tough to stay afloat.

"I've been in this spot for nine years, and I'm one of the only ones left," says Michael Moon Bear, owner of Moon Shadow on South Howard. "There's a couple of bars here, and an attorney, but everyone else has been evicted. Sure, it's gotten harder."

Moon Shadow is located on the Rookery Block, which was once slated to be leveled to make room for an office tower - a project that has since been abandoned -- but which now may be demolished to make room for a surface-level parking lot. (Plans are also underway to save the building and rehabilitate it.) With such uncertainty, the block's street-level retail has emptied out.

Moon Bear says that the trouble on his block began when the building's owner found out that some of the sidewalks were collapsing.

"The owner had to close off the sidewalk, and we lost a lot of foot traffic," says Moon Bear. "Today, I'm on a month-to-month lease and have been for a couple of years."

He doesn't mind carrying on from month to month, but says it would be virtually impossible for someone to start a new business on those terms.

"It doesn't bother me. I guess I'm not much of a high-stress person," says Moon Bear with a chuckle. "But if you are just starting out -- boy, you wouldn't want to start in a place like this."

How's Business? -- Downtown Spokane serves a market of an estimated 1.7 million people -- Spokane is, after all, the biggest city between Seattle and Minneapolis -- so there should be plenty of shoppers to go around, especially with a new mall pulling people in.

Overall, Moon Bear says his business is slow but steady, yet contrary to popular belief he's not seeing much spinoff from the new mall.

"I used to be much more busy. I used to have four or five employees, but the store doesn't support that anymore," says Moon Bear. "I think it has slowed down because of the mall. The shoppers go there and to the places that are interconnected with the skywalks -- but even at the outer ends of the skywalks, there isn't that many people."

Chris O'Harra owns Auntie's Bookstore on Main, which today has about 30 employees. "Business is down," she says. "It's just a tough economic climate right now," adding that when River Park Square opened, Auntie's saw "a nice little boost in business." O'Harra believes that the mall gives people even more reasons to shop downtown.

"There are so many more options downtown now, especially with the movie theater," she says. "What we need is more small businesses. You can't pay people to open businesses downtown, but we need to do something to encourage people to do so anyhow."

Martha Cummings, who owns the Dill Pickle Maternity store, says she also saw an increase in business when River Park Square opened. "But today, we have a little less business -- well, a lot less than years and years ago," she says, adding that she is concerned that downtown has become too upscale, especially after the Nordstrom Rack and Burlington Coat Factory moved out.

Parking (Still) -- The Downtown Spokane Partnership (DSP) is not blind to the fact that there are many empty retail storefronts downtown, and the organization is now working on some new plans to fill them up. They can't subsidize rents for startup shops, but they can do something about people's perception of downtown shopping.

"First, the DSP, together with the Business Improvement District, continues to do everything we can to make downtown clean, safe and fun," says Mike Edwards, president of the DSP. And he's got something to show for that effort: During the fourth quarter of 2002, graffiti was down 70 percent, and the amount of trash picked up by the Clean Team was down by 20 percent compared to 2001.

But that's just part of the solution, says Edwards: "We have to do something about parking."

As in leveling the Rookery Block to make room for another surface-level parking lot? "No," says Edwards, "the DSP is really opposed to that proposal, and we're hoping something better can happen to that property. The fact is that there is plenty of parking downtown, but the problem is it costs money."

Free parking programs are usually subsidized by participating retailers, but with a shrinking retail base, it has become more and more difficult to find retailers willing to participate in sharing the cost -- even inside the mall.

"National retailers want free parking. They ask for that when they look at relocating," says Edwards. "And at the other end of the scale, many of the smaller local retailers can't afford to participate in the validation programs we have -- yet they tend to get the most of the complaints from shoppers who can't find a free place to park."

Moon Bear says he doesn't belong to any of the parking validation programs, and few of his customers complain.

"There is parking here, yes, it will cost you some money, but not as much as in many other parts of the country," he says, adding that he'd prefer to see fewer national retailers and more homegrown businesses in downtown. "What's the difference between downtown and the Valley Mall then?" he asks.

Auntie's participates in Easy Park. "We do everything we can to help people with parking," says O'Harra.

Other merchants create their own parking programs. "I give cash," says Cummings matter-of-factly. "I want to create goodwill for downtown."

Andrew Baucom, who owns Art by Yourself on Monroe, says his customers often complain about parking, too.

"We'd love to belong to a parking validation program, but there is [no participating lot] near us," he says. He also has a slightly different take on the parking issue: "The best sign that you have actually made it is that parking is a problem -- just look at Portland and Seattle."

But Baucom adds that some zoning changes would help create a more pedestrian-friendly downtown.

"I think Post Street is one of the ugliest things I've ever seen -- half of it is vacant, there's nothing on it," he says. "They still don't mandate retail on first floors. I think all downtown buildings should have retails on the first floor."

Fill 'em Up -- River Park Square doesn't seem to have too much trouble attracting new tenants. In March, the Children's Museum of Spokane announced that it will relocate to a 16,000-square-foot space on the lower level of the mall, beneath Banana Republic. This fills an unoccupied space in the mall but opens up another storefront out on the street.

So until it's 100 percent full, the mall will compete to grab shops that might have located elsewhere in downtown. That's not all bad, since many believe that without River Park Square, the Bon would have left by now and retail in downtown Spokane would be an oxymoron.

"Whether it's in Seattle or River Park Square here in Spokane, the malls have brought an energy downtown that wasn't there before, and that's what matters," says Edwards, who believes more housing could be downtown's best strategy, as retail will follow.

The DSP is trying to spend this year laying a foundation that could bring in more street-level retail tenants by promoting more downtown housing.

A study commissioned by the DSP showed that downtown Spokane should be able to support as many as 300 new market-rate housing units every year. That's comparable to the housing growth seen in Seattle, where downtown residency increased by 75 percent between 1990 and 2000.

Edwards says the DSP is trying to help such projects get off the ground so they can prove that people will live downtown and that such projects are financially viable for investors. He says downtown Spokane is starting to get the kinds of amenities that helped Louisville, Ky., succeed -- even the kind that Seattle and Portland can boast of. More people living downtown means more built-in shoppers for downtown businesses.

Moon Bear agrees about the need for more downtown housing.

"To attract businesses to the empty stores, you want foot traffic and a reasonable amount of rent," he says. "It would be great if people lived here, if there was more of a community downtown. That would be a tremendous good thing. As it is today, if you just drive through downtown and see all the empty stores it looks sort of like a ghost town -- that's not going to entice anyone to get out of the car and go around to shop."

Calling downtown Spokane empty is a bit of a stretch, at least if you talk to some of the local real estate management companies.

"There really is not a ton of space available downtown anywhere," says Larry Soehren, vice president of Kiemle and Hagood. "The Rookery Block is all vacant, but we don't really know what's going to happen there. The Crescent Court has one space available. Let's say we had 10 1,000-square-foot businesses ready to move in downtown -- I'm really not sure where they would go."

Good point. Buildings like the old Burlington Coat Factory site don't appeal to someone looking to open a small, eccentric clothing store. Soehren says the area around West First and Monroe seems to be one of the best places to find open smaller storefronts.

"From my perspective, I think River Park Square has done its job," says Soehren, whose company was recently hired as the mall's new agent.

Some smaller business owners agree wholeheartedly.

"I think downtown is healthier, in general -- especially, I think there are more people wandering around," says Andy Dinnison, owner of Boo Radley's on Howard across from Riverfront Park. "It would be a ghost town without River Park Square."

But Dinnison adds that downtown landlords could help hasten the revitalization of downtown by being more flexible.

"I wish they would encourage smaller businesses on the street-level spaces," he says.

"I think working with the landlords -- you know, splitting up some of the bigger spaces and working on the rents. That would help all of us."

Another recruitment strategy could be to survey exactly which stores are needed in the downtown retail mix, then target those to fill street-level and skywalk vacancies.

"Most people agree it would be great to have a Tower Records downtown, but people don't buy CDs to the extent that they used to anymore -- they download them off the Internet," says Edwards. "We think there's a need for some men's stores, perhaps like an REI. Having the right retail mix would help attract customers, but like I said, we're not certain exactly how we do this."

Makayla Patrick contributed to this story.

Publication date: 04/24/03

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