Sorry, We're Closed

Downtown businesses are struggling to stay afloat

Six-thirty on a Tuesday evening at Tom's Tavern in downtown Phoenix. The place can serve up to 220 people, and it often does -- during the day. But tonight, there are only six people eating dinner. Tonight, like so many other nights, Tom's Tavern is empty.

Near the bar stands a Hispanic man of average height, one of Tom's dishwashers. Two days from now, during the lunch hour, he'll be rushing his tray full of dirty plates back to the kitchen. He'll have no chance to watch television then. But tonight he does. Game Six of the National League Championship Series is on. From time to time, the dishwasher yawns as he watches.

Two days from now, during lunch, the woman tending bar will have no time to wait on every table either. But tonight, during dinner, she says, "How are you doing?" and "What can I get you?" to an older couple sitting in a booth, before returning to the bar and asking two guys there the same.

Two days from now, during lunch, Michael Ratner, one of the owners of Tom's Tavern, will seat everyone who walks in. But tonight, Ratner's gone and people seat themselves.

At 2 North Central, Tom's Tavern is one of the few places open for dinner downtown. Ratner says he gets some business at that hour from those on their way to an event at the Dodge Theatre, four blocks west of Tom's.

But it's not significant business. Ratner says between 85 percent and 95 percent of a day's receipts come between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. "That's high occupancy for a very limited window of opportunity," Ratner says.

And it's the reason a lot of retailers and restaurateurs close early.

Mark Russell is the owner of Oregano's Pizza Bistro at 130 East Washington. "Downtown is a different beast," says Russell, who also owns the five other Oregano's throughout Arizona.

Last year, the downtown location became the first to only serve lunch. Russell couldn't support keeping Oregano's open after the lunch period because the people who work downtown by and large don't live there. So, Russell reasons, why stay open if there's no one to stay open for?

Star Mays lives on Ninth Street and Van Buren in a one-bedroom loft that was a "steal." But despite her "huge" place, the cheap price she's paying for it and the proximity to work -- she waitresses at the Hard Rock Cafe a few blocks west -- she won't live downtown for long. She doesn't like it because, once she's finished waiting tables, "there aren't a lot of things to do."

No place is open, "not even fast food," she says.

Jason Rosendahl, the manager of Sky Lounge at 132 East Washington, moved out of downtown a year ago because "there's nothing for day-to-day needs."

"Where can I get a gallon of milk?" he asks.

The answer: Nowhere. The closest store is on Seventh Street and McDowell.

It is, as city officials say, the problem of the chicken and the egg. How do you get businesses to stay open past five when no one lives nearby? How do you get people to move to a place where there are few services open after work?

For decades, Phoenix and Maricopa County did little, if anything, to help small businesses in downtown. Instead, government helped large businesses and their projects: $13 million to the Arizona Center; $45 million to America West Arena; $243 million to Bank One Ballpark ("Jerry's World," John Dougherty, October 16). The city says the money was a good investment -- these facilities have more than paid their own way and drawn thousands downtown even if they stay just long enough to catch a game and walk back to their cars.

But the city has never offered small businesses the kind of help it's given the big operators. Even city officials admit that what little has been done, in the form of a sales tax reimbursement, has not amounted to much.

Until recently, the same could be said for the city's involvement with small urban residential developers. But slowly, incrementally, things are changing. Experts, including city officials, have come to recognize that bringing residents downtown is the first thing they must do if they hope to bolster a thriving downtown business district that includes restaurants and bars, boutiques and bookstores.

According to public records, since 1997, four housing projects have received financial assistance of more than $1 million from the city. A smattering of other projects have received reimbursements for infrastructure improvements. But the roughly $10 million in financial assistance the city has given small developers since 1993 still falls far short of the hundreds of millions given to mega projects like Bank One Ballpark, America West Arena, or the Arizona Center.

And the number of housing units that the city's dollars are helping pay for is nowhere close to the housing that experts believe is needed to bring life to downtown Phoenix. There are now about 3,400 housing units downtown, providing homes for about 7,000 people.

New projects will add only about 200 new housing units, a far cry from what's needed to bring what the urban planners call "critical mass" to downtown Phoenix. Portland, Oregon, for example, has 20,000 people living downtown; Denver has as many as 75,000.

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2 comments
patientlywaiting
patientlywaiting

I'm not sure I agree with the reason why Daniel Malventano of Daniel's states for not expanding in the downtown area. I think he couldn't afford to expand, PERIOD! I've been waiting months for payment of an invoice (which, by the way, is under $150.00). He must have fallen into dire financial straits, poor fellar.

patientlywaiting
patientlywaiting

I'm not sure I agree with the reason why Daniel Malventano of Daniel's states for not expanding in the downtown area. I think he couldn't afford to expand, PERIOD! I've been waiting months for payment of an invoice (which, by the way, is under $150.00). He must have fallen into dire financial straits, poor fellar.

 
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