SYCAMORE TOWNSHIP – The countdown to Black Friday is on, and not just for bargain-minded holiday shoppers.
Officials in Sycamore Township are prepping, too, for retail's biggest day -- its Kenwood Towne Centre is one of the Tri-State's most popular destinations -- and a series of recent improvements, from expanded interstate exit ramps to an increased police presence, will make the area easier than ever to navigate, they say.
It's a culmination of several projects years in the making and an investment north of $20 million. Expectations are high even though the new systems have yet to face their toughest test -- a bulge of visitors come Friday and beyond.
"There isn't a stone we haven't unturned to try to ensure we move traffic through this area during the holidays," said Tom Weidman, Sycamore Township trustee and a resident of the community since 1985. "We're probably as far out in front of this thing as anybody, and I think you're going to find traffic's moving better than ever. (Kenwood) is not just a local mall; this is a regional draw."
So what should shoppers expect? Here's a breakdown of the biggest changes. Additional insider tips – like which of Kenwood's 5,800 parking spots is best – can be found at www.kenwoodtownecentre.com.
It's no easy task, filtering the tens of thousands that converge on the Kenwood area on any given day. Holiday peaks mean three times the normal traffic, around 100,000 people, with the mall just one destination: There's also an expanding array of restaurants. Close to 1 million square feet of office space and counting. And 3 million total square feet of retail, including a revamped Sycamore Plaza, home to TJ Maxx, Macy's Furniture Gallery, Dick's and more.
"Years ago, we didn't have all that. You have a lot of traffic in this area, and our goal is to move it," said Greg Bickford, Sycamore Township administrator. "Kenwood is, and will be for a while, the retail hub of Cincinnati. You can look at Liberty Center, but that's a little off the beaten path for this demographic."
The township first partnered with the Ohio Department of Transportation in 2003 to widen Montgomery Road, a project, Bickford said, that kick-started a series of improvements over the last several years.
"We knew that traffic in the area couldn't be sustained long term the way it existed," he said. "We invested a lot of dollars improving infrastructure, not only for the Towne Centre, but for everything else here."
The most recent update: ODOT widened exit ramps from northbound and southbound Interstate 71 to Montgomery Road.
Northbound now has two left turn lanes. And southbound, the right-hand lane is dedicated, meaning it feeds directly onto the Kenwood Towne Centre property, at the entrance that fronts the Cheesecake Factory.
"If you're in it (that lane), you have to go into the Towne Centre," Bickford said. "There's a lot of other retail around here, but the Towne Centre gets the most traffic. So if you can direct the traffic into the Towne Centre, that frees up the system."
A Band-Aid for Bottlenecks
Once shoppers arrive on Kenwood Towne Centre property, typically more bottlenecks ensue. So mall officials have tweaked their own system internally.
Among the many modifications: a new barricade at that main entrance off Montgomery Road, which will filter two continuous lanes of inbound traffic toward Dillard's, instead of straight away. Those lanes are one-way only, which pushes more traffic toward Galbraith Road, considered the least trafficked of all mall entry points.
"We all know how 71 gets backed up, and we're trying to improve that flow of traffic. Once we get them directly onto the property, we have to keep that moving," said Cindy Hart, marketing manager, Kenwood Towne Centre. "This should get traffic in twice as fast as it did before."
In the olden days -- or really just a few years ago – it was a job for a cop on the ground. Today, Sycamore Township officials are using cameras to adjust their traffic lights, and on the fly.
Cameras, mounted in several strategic locations, can be viewed remotely. If there's a backup, a traffic engineer can quickly adjust the signal to ease congestion. They do not record or track license plates, officials stressed.
A few went up last year, but more cameras have been added in 2015. "This year we're going to be close to having all 20 lights in Kenwood covered," Weidman said.
"I don’t know anybody else doing this," he added. "If there's a backup at any specific situation…we can move that traffic through."
Ed Williams of TEC Engineering Inc., the firm that's contracted by Sycamore Township to monitor the system, said the cameras will be manned "almost all day" Black Friday and during peak holiday hours, like Friday and Saturday afternoons.
"It's a very robust, complicated system," Williams said.
Utilities Go Underground
And how does that help, exactly? First off, it's safer, officials said.
"You may think it doesn't help move traffic, but in reality, it does," Bickford said. "Believe it or not, things in the right-of-way distract a driver. By putting utilities underground, it gives you a cleaner visual corridor."
It also gives township officials a backup if an electrical circuit fails. The second one can take over and keep the lights – namely traffic signals – on.
"You're not going to see, hopefully, traffic lights just blinking," Bickford said. "That certainly has been a problem in the past, especially when you get these early winter storms."
... And More Police
Starting Black Friday, Sycamore Township will beef up its police presence in and around Kenwood Towne Centre. Additional officers will be stationed to direct traffic and aid with shoplifters, among other duties.
Weidman declined to say how many were being added, but the move is being financed through the township's joint economic development zone fund, or money that comes from a tax levied on the business district.
"We're confident we will have enough security in the mall and mall area that we'll have a very safe shopping season," he said.
Overall, officials have confidence in all the above upgrades, but the system won't face its first real test for a few more days. They say they'll be better able to make immediate adjustments this time around, but will shoppers – even residents and those who work nearby – ultimately leave happy?
"The main goal is to eliminate irritants for the guest," said Wanda Wagner, general manager, Kenwood Towne Centre. "We want it to be as pleasant and as memorable an experience as possible. We don't want you to walk in our doors and be irritated because you had to sit in traffic. The township and ODOT recognize that, too."
"It does work; it will work," Hart added. "It's taken years to get to this level…but we feel this year is going to be one of the best."
Shopper Cheryl McSwain, who was raised in Cincinnati but now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, has already noticed a difference. She visits often, since her parents still live in town, and has made about half a dozen trips to Kenwood so far this year.
"It seems like it's just a lot easier to get in and out now, especially with the new lanes on the expressway," she said. "I'll be back up here right before Christmas, so I'll see how things are at that time.
"I think it's hard during the holidays to make everybody happy, when you have that many thousands of cars coming in," she added. "Black Friday will be the test."
We put Kenwood Towne Centre's parking quota to the test. How does the Sycamore Township shopping center stack up? Pretty well, we'd say
Tri-County Mall: 6,400 spaces
Kenwood: 5,800 spaces
Florence Mall: 5,200 spaces
Liberty Center: 5,000 spaces
EastGate Mall: 4,800 spaces
Northgate Mall: 4,700 spaces
Follow Liz Engel on Twitter: @_LizEngel