Downtown Charleston business owners agree, they’d like to see a group work together to redevelop, market and advocate for increased economic development in what was once a high traffic retail market.
The methods by which to do that, however, differ depending on the retailer. Chuck Hamsher, who owns The Purple Moon, a mod furniture store on Quarrier Street in Charleston, said a retail-specific association would be good for the district.
“There’s a lot of common interests. There’s a lot of common problems, and they could probably be best addressed by having an independent association for downtown,” Hamsher said.
Some of those issues he and others relate to include parking, shopper traffic and coordinated marketing and events efforts. Noting the success of Main Street organizations on Charleston’s East End and West Side, Hamsher said a similar model could work downtown.
While such efforts have developed organically, Hamsher said, there are moves being made through Imagine Charleston’s Downtown Redevelopment plan — a revitalization effort between the Charleston Area Alliance, the city and the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority.
Susie Salisbury, community development director for the Alliance, said downtown has had more traditional business associations in the past — charging fees, organizing events and advocating for downtown retailers. There were also a handful of other economic development organizations, like the Charleston Renaissance Corporation, which eventually merged under the umbrella of the Alliance, Salisbury said.
While Charleston Renaissance once focused on the East End to connect downtown and the state capitol complex, the Alliance rerouted its efforts back to the city’s center by providing some staff and services to Art Walk, a once a month event that features area artists, gallery spaces and retailers.
“While it’s not a business association, [Art Walk has] taken on quite a bit of the marketing and events downtown,” Salisbury said. “Obviously the downtown could see a real need for coming together, and that’s kind of how you saw Art Walk born.”
Traci Higginbotham, a co-owner of Art Emporium, said the event has become a catalyst and example of what could be done downtown.
“Our first couple of years it wasn’t well attended, but now, a bad art walk now we have 150 people,” Higginbotham said, laughing.
The Art Emporium was one of the original tenants of the Charleston Town Center mall, but moved to its Quarrier Street location when it could no longer afford the rent and staff required for that location, Higginbotham said. The move was risky.
“It was scary at first, and the first couple months were kind of slow, but West Virginia Showcase in the mall followed us,” Higginbotham said, noting several other businesses that came downtown after the Art Emporium set up shop 10 years ago in September.
Tony Paranzino, owner and tailor at Tony the Tailor, said though his shop has changed locations, it has always been in downtown Charleston and always will be.
“I never thought about anywhere else,” Paranzino said of the menswear shop, which has clientele working and living nearby.
Paranzino wants to see a variety of businesses — not just retail, but also professional organizations and restaurants — come together “to have a cohesive voice [at] city council.”
“If I go down there and raise hell about it, I’m the crazy tailor,” Paranzino said. “If I have 40 people with me, it’s a different effect.”
Hamsher said the city of Charleston’s attitude toward downtown has changed, much of it for the better. But, he would like to see an organized effort to tap into and coordinate with and take advantage of the large city events that could bring customers eastward from Kanwaha Boulevard and the mall.
“Communication is the key,” Hamsher said. “And if that body did nothing other than really keep that communication flow going between all the retailers of, ‘How do we best plug in if there’s the car show up on the Boulevard? And how do we best plug in if something else is going on in the city, and make sure that’s part of a planned strategy to pull all this together?’ ”
Part of the Imagine Charleston downtown plan involves creating a business improvement district in which property owners would invest in the area’s redevelopment. Those who participate would decide what should be done downtown and how much they’d be willing to contribute financially.
“You can have all the business management organizations you want, but if they’re not funded then they’re not going to last too long,” Salisbury said. “The business improvement district is that catalyst for making sure downtown Charleston has a sustainable funding source for making downtown a priority, which it should be. It’s the capital city.”
Paranzino said he has “mixed feelings” about the idea, which he said would be costly for retailers, many of whom aren’t owners, but tenants of those properties.
“I don’t think we have much problem downtown, because most of the property owners are responsible,” Paranzino said. “But, you get this business improvement district, what if it’s a nonprofit or a religious organization that owns the building? They would automatically be exempt from that.”
Paranzino has been outspoken against similar development efforts in the past, including a late 1990s business improvement district proposal by Charleston Renaissance that would have charged property owners a 15-cent-per-square-foot fee to pay for sidewalk maintenance, snow removal, security and marketing efforts. Paranzino also clashed with CURA in 2001 over the city’s 1988 facade renovation rules.
The latest business improvement district proposal hasn’t been implemented, as Imagine Charleston implementation is still in its infancy with the coordination of a variety of marketing, beautification and housing projects in downtown Charleston.
Hamsher, Higginbotham and Paranzino each emphasized the top task of a business association as getting people to hit the streets and shop, dine and entertain downtown.
“I’ve always said, if we could pull away a half of a percent of the people that are up on Corridor G looking for something to do, we’d all be really busy,” Hamsher said.
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