Could retail save The Banks? Those in the know say probably not

But a thriving Banks might save downtown retail

CINCINNATI -- Jim Condict is one of the owners of the Street Corner Market at The Banks, the mixed-use development between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium on Cincinnati's riverfront. 

It's one of only two retail establishments there, the other being Tervis, which sells personalized, insulated drinkware. On the other hand, The Banks has a plethora of restaurants, including Moerlein Lager House and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

The Banks has also seen several restaurants come and go, including Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill and Howl at the Moon/Splitsville Luxury Lanes.

Would retail fare any better?

Condict would like to see.

"If it were a Lululemon, for instance, that offered yoga as well as shopping," he said, "I could see that doing well … or maybe a boutique (that sold items of local interest)."

The Banks has looked a bit rudderless lately, with its former developer, Atlanta-based Carter, extending (and then missing) a deadline to start a new phase of the project in 2016. Carter left the project in July 2017, and the Joint Banks Steering Committee is looking for a new developer.

Taxpayers spent more than $135 million over the past 10 years to build The Banks. Private developers were supposed to raise $600 million to $800 million, but they've raised only $280 million so far. Of the 2.8 million square feet projected for restaurant, hotel, apartment and office space, only about one million square feet have been developed.

Could retail save The Banks?

Those who know retail in Cincinnati and in other cities say it's not likely. 

It would be very difficult, said Chris Hodge, senior vice president of CBRE in Cincinnati, who handled the leasing for the initial phase of construction at The Banks. It would take stores that serve a niche market, something customers will drive farther to shop at than they normally would.

Very few retailers have that kind of drawing power, said University of Cincinnati economics professor Michael Jones. One example is Cabela's, which sells outdoor goods. Cabela's would never build a store at The Banks, Jones said, because it's more expensive to lease space there than in the suburbs where it usually builds.

The Banks would do better, he said, to continue a mixed-use strategy that brings people downtown by providing living space or office space, as it did with one of its successes, General Electric's 1,400-strong Global Operations Center. 

"Retail always follows rooftops; that is always the model," said Andrew Overbeck, principal for urban planner MKSK, which did the master plan for the eight-square-block Arena District in Columbus.

Downtown Cincinnati hasn't been a good place for retail lately, said J.R. Anderson, principal for Jeffery R. Anderson Real Estate, the current leasing agent for The Banks. When people want to physically touch goods, as opposed to shopping for them on the Internet, he said, they want to go to a regional shopping center with a lot of stores in one place, such as the Kenwood Towne Centre.

"It would be nice if we had more square footage for retail," he said. "But I don't think it would drive more traffic." 

Dry cleaners, shoe repair stores or other service retailers would be more likely to fit in than traditional clothing retailers, said Tracy Schwegmann, Anderson's marketing manager. 

Two organizations, including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, are in talks to build a concert venue at The Banks. That's an idea with the potential to make The Banks a destination location, Jones said.

"People won't go downtown just to get clothes or some other type of retail goods, but they will go down to see a concert," he added.

You won't find a great deal of retail right next to stadiums in neighboring cities. But you might find it blossoming a 15-minute walk away.

In Louisville, a Duluth Trading Co. store opened in November 2017 in the block next to the KFC Yum! Center arena, said Rebecca Matheny, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership. There are some stores four blocks away at 4th Street Live!, one of the city's most-used entertainment venues, but even here, the website lists 16 restaurants, bars or entertainment facilities and only two retail stores.

"When people are attending an event at the Yum Center, they don't tend to shop while they are there," Matheny said. The University of Louisville plays its home basketball games at the arena, but it's also a popular concert venue.

In Columbus, the Arena District's website lists 18 establishments, only one of them retail: a convenience store. "It's not at all a shopping destination," Overbeck said. 

One reason for that, he said, is the proximity of the Short North Arts District, which has a wide selection of shops that sell furniture, clothes, jewelry and other items. It's about a 12-minute walk from the Arena District, which takes its name from Nationwide Arena, home of the National Hockey League's Columbus Blue Jackets.

Indianapolis is unusual because for the past 20 years, it's had a large downtown retail center: Circle Centre Mall, which sports more than 100 retailers. It was there before Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the National Football League's Indianapolis Colts, opened five blocks away in 2008. Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the National Basketball Association's Indiana Pacers, is a 10-minute walk from the mall.

The mall is part of a network of enclosed skyways that lead to the Indiana Convention Center, next to the stadium, which is connected by those skyways to 4,719 hotel rooms, more than any other convention center in the nation.

"What Indianapolis is good at is getting people easily from Point A to Point B," said Catherine Esselman, director of real estate for Downtown Indy Inc.

But retail's struggles have affected Circle Centre Mall too. Carson's department store was the mall's last anchor tenant after Nordstrom closed in 2011, and Carson's recently announced plans to close its Circle Centre store.

Retail's struggling all over, so it seems more likely that if The Banks were to attract more residents and office workers, it could save retail in downtown Cincinnati, rather than the other way around.

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