Three years later ... Chandler city government’s investment in downtown area has led to business growth, community pride - East Valley Tribune: Chandler

Three years later ... Chandler city government’s investment in downtown area has led to business growth, community pride

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Posted: Monday, February 17, 2014 5:45 am | Updated: 4:34 pm, Mon Feb 17, 2014.

“Revitalization” has become a buzzword for cities plagued with malnourished downtowns, a classification that fit Chandler more than a decade ago. Now, a little more than three years after it finished several construction projects and recruited businesses, the city is starting to see its efforts come to fruition.

While the initial infrastructure projects actually diminished business profits, the half-mile strip of Arizona Avenue between Chandler Boulevard and Frye Road is making a slow comeback, said Chandler Economic Development Director Christine Mackay. She said vacancy rates are at an all-time low and the city is working to develop more lots, all of which are signs of a slowly turning economy.

“I think it’s on its way to becoming a very vibrant destination, an entertainment and cultural location and a signature employment corridor,” she said.

In 2010, the newly revitalized downtown Chandler was opened in conjunction with a new City Hall building. The streets were narrower, sidewalks were wider and new light posts were installed as part of the $9.3 million project.

The most recent figures provided by the city indicate the vacancy rate had decreased to less than 2 percent – a notable decrease from the 65 percent rate in 1998-99. The biggest decrease in vacancy rates has come since the reopening of the historic square built around Dr. A.J. Chandler Park.

Now the downtown area is comprised of local businesses with something for everyone to enjoy, including a winery, microbrewery, Irish pub, gift shop, quilt shop and western wear store.

“Most of the buildings down here had been boarded up,” Mackay said. “We had challenged housing. We had no City Hall, no Arizona Avenue. It has been a tremendous rebirth and revitalization of the downtown.”

The success of the revitalization can also be seen in the approximately 8-percent increase in sales receipts since 2010, which reflects support for the independent businesses. The downtown redevelopment has also gained the attention of people outside Chandler, as the City Hall building has won 20 awards, the infrastructure on the strip of Arizona Avenue has won eight, and the revitalization as a whole received two awards. The awards have come from both within the state and from agencies outside Arizona.

An unfortunate, temporary side effect of the revitalization efforts was road closures and restrictions that caused residents to avoid the area. Sibley’s West, a gift shop selling only Arizona-made products, settled into its location on San Marcos Place during this time because the construction had increased vacancies so much, owner John Wolfe said. Wolfe, a Chandler resident, said both during and before the construction, the historic square had become a sore spot with residents and business owners.

“Downtown kind of suffered, and there were concerns about crime and general wear and tear of the downtown area,” he said.

Roughly a year after construction finished, Coach & Willies opened its second Valley location after the city recruited the restaurant, manager Kevin Grojean said. He said the restaurant has done well, even after it’s became an established part of the area, rather than just a new restaurant.

“Our numbers have held strong,” he said. “Even in an economy that’s not conducive for people to go out (to eat) multiple times a week, we’ve held very strong numbers the last two years. We’ve settled in and actually increased our daily business.”

Nell Huddleston, manager of Saba’s Western Wear, said older businesses are also seeing a bump in their sales and more customers are coming to the shops.

“I’ve been with (Saba’s) for a little over 10 years, and I have seen a lot of changes,” she said. “It’s been for the better, and it helped us a lot because people are starting to come downtown a lot more.”

Maury Williamson, owner of the century-old Country Clipper Barbershop, said downtown has become a destination for residents and those in other Valley cities.

“Chandler has thrust itself into a major city, and it’s impacted us 100 percent as far as the number of people coming downtown to utilize the services,” he said. “It was a great shot in the arm to help downtown grow.”

Even though the redevelopment has been successful, it has been concentrated in a small area of Chandler. However, the city is hoping to see it expand further and encompass more streets and businesses.

“We aren’t done,” Mackay said. “You can’t rebirth something and just leave it alone. You actually have to keep working at it.”

One of the biggest things downtown Chandler is missing is high-density urban housing for people that want to live where they work. Mackay said she also feels a theater for live music, comedy or theatrical performance would complement the downtown restaurants and businesses.

“We have a number of retailers that want to be in downtown Chandler, but we just don’t have the space,” said. “I think over the next few years you will see some new projects come out of the ground because of that demand.”

By creating a strong downtown area, Mackay said it makes Chandler better overall, as it creates a sense of place and pride for residents.

“It really is the heart of the community,” she said. “Without the vibrant revitalized city center, I don’t think your community can be a thorough complete community.”

• Shelby Slade is a sophomore at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is an intern with the Tribune this semester. Reach her at tribintern@evtrib.com.

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