Downtown tries to lure more retail

Vacancy rates down but cost remains a deterrent

Last December, the vibrant window design at Biggles toy store looked like the embodiment of the momentum in downtown Providence’s retail sector.

Opening in time for the holiday shopping season, the 1950s-era display was used to attract customers into the new store on Westminster Street.

But in the midst of multiple investigations into the operation of Mixitforme, an electronics store run by Biggles’ owners, the toy retailer abruptly shut down last month, leaving a storefront once full of model trains and dolls empty.

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With the closing of Biggles and Mixitforme, which also had a location on Westminster Street, two prime retail locations are now left vacant in an area that is slated to see an influx of residents from nearby condominium projects.

But, according to Providence Economic Development Partnership President Donald C. Eversley, the momentum in the downtown district remains strong.

Other retailers have opened, he noted, including shoe store Cathers & Coyne and Lily Pad Home Furnishings.

In addition, restaurants such as Citron on Memorial Boulevard and
Jimmy John’s on Weybosset Street, are slated to open soon. In total, 37 restaurants and stores have opened in the downtown area within the last two years.

The empty locations on Westminster Street are an isolated incident, Eversley said, and the Partnership does not view the store closings as a “black eye.”

“It’s a little of a loss of momentum just in regards to those two retail spaces that they controlled,” Eversley said.

One thing the district still lacks is a grocery store. With residential properties being developed in the area, Eversley said, the Partnership and developers, particularly Arnold “Buff” Chace’s Cornish Associates, have collaborated to find a store to match the city’s needs.

No concrete plans have been set forth, but Eversley said there is an “experienced regional grocer that’s very interested and actively looking for a site.”

Part of the problem with attracting grocers to downtown is the lack of available real estate. Most stores would be looking for a larger space than what is presently available and would be seeking it for far less expensive leases.

Retail spaces such as where the Dress Barn now occupies on Westminster Street, which Eversley said would be the perfect fit for a grocery store, have rents well above what grocery stores generally pay.

Larger chain stores have also been reluctant to locate downtown, Eversley said. Several smaller stores, such as Carcieri’s Market on Charles Street and Shore’s Market on Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence, would provide a good match for the anticipated customer base. However, neither store has been lured by the offer, he said.

“What I’ve been encouraging is really a small urban-market model that may be different than what they are doing outside of the city,” he said. “There have been enough successful models from other, bigger cities around the region to take a look at. But it’s been difficult to get them to think about doing it.”

Paul DeRoche, president of the R.I. Retail Federation, said he is unsure if a grocery store could work in downtown Providence. His chief concern is parking, which he said would be necessary for people purchasing groceries.

He also fears that parking in the city may get scarcer when larger corporations, such as GTECH, move into Providence. And that could further hamper the efforts to attract consumer dollars to an area located immediately next to the ubiquitous Providence Place mall, he said.

“There is some potential for some retailing, but I haven’t seen anything as dramatic as the mall,” DeRoche said. “The mall dominates the whole retail industry in Providence.

That’s what it was built for.”

Joelle Crane, program manager for the Providence Foundation, said the square footage available downtown has dramatically shrunk in recent years. A 2003 study showed that 130,000 square feet, or 28 percent of the city’s total retail space, was available. In 2005, that number had dropped to 66,984 square feet, about 15 percent of the total stock.

Next month, the Providence Foundation is slated to host a tour of the city aimed at bringing more retailers downtown. The event, which in the past has featured Mayor David N. Cicilline and business leaders touting the city, will promote Providence as a reinvigorated location that grows as more people live, work and attend school in the city.

The event also looks to help businesses find the right space for their operations, Crane said.

“We want to get the right businesses in the right spaces,” Crane said. “Right now the right spaces are available.”