Hartford's Merchants Cite Need For New Phase Of Retail Growth
KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
August 25, 2009
A report that 40 percent of the retail space in downtown Hartford is vacant doesn't much surprise store owner Angella Thompson.
Since she opened Whims & Fancy on Asylum Street in 2007, she has seen two other upscale gift shops close, including Parfums du Jour at the now-shuttered Goodwin Hotel.
And each day she needs only look down Asylum to see the gleaming yet empty storefronts at the Hartford 21 apartment tower.
Thompson is at ground zero for downtown's retail vacancy, which is concentrated on three streets — Main, Trumbull and Asylum. In all, according to a new survey released by the city, downtown has 203,352 square feet of vacant space — about one-quarter of that at Hartford 21.
The recession isn't helping efforts to bring new retailers to the city, as consumer spending and bank lending are both still tight.
Thompson and others, however, see potential for downtown, which already has a firm foundation of restaurants and is ripe, they say, for a new phase of retail development.
"There's lots of options for fine dining but nowhere to shop," Thompson said. "What we need is a major retailer to come in. Then the smaller retailers will come in after that."
Thompson saw plenty of promise in the years before she opened her upscale card and gift store. The convention center was bringing more visitors to town and major new residential projects — including Hartford 21 and the former Sage-Allen building — were filling up.
She takes hope in the fact that the developers of Front Street are constructing another 65,000 square feet of retail space despite the downturn. Thompson said running a business downtown is "definitely a struggle" right now, but she has persevered because she has included in her store an event-planning service for weddings, proms and other occasions. And she also is developing an encouraging following among those who work in the city, she said.
What is needed, Thompson and others say, is more variety, more mid-priced clothing stores, a shoe store and a bookstore — all retailers that were once firmly ensconced in the city.
These ideas have been aired many times before. But the city hopes the survey of vacancies will be a valuable resource in showing prospective tenants specific sites that are available.
"The biggest thing — a grocery store is very important and then clothing stores will follow," said shoe repairman Pio Fusco, who has had a shop at three downtown locations in the past 40 years and on Pratt Street for the past seven.
It is critical, Fusco said, to get downtown workers shopping on their lunch hours.
"If they don't do it during lunch, they are going to go home and go to Westfarms or wherever," Fusco said.
Downtown workers out on their lunch break on a recent afternoon said they would shop if there were more of the options that they find at the malls.
Tyrone White, who works at the Day Pitney law firm, said he used to shop at TJ Maxx in the old Civic Center, which offered more affordable clothing than upscale clothiers downtown.
"I just want to be able to get a shirt and not pay $65 or $70 for it," White said.
Now, he just goes to the mall in Manchester, the town where he lives.
White said he had high hopes for the retail space at Hartford 21, where he was sipping a soda.
"I really thought when they built all this the stores would come back," White said. "Maybe it's the economy and it's probably the rents, too."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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