Archive for Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Vacancies leave empty feeling downtown

November 20, 2007

Storefront windows that used to offer merchandise for sale or a peek at tables bustling with customers having their appetites sated are slowly being replaced with "For Rent" and "For Lease" signs along Fourth Street in downtown Tonganoxie.

The Bullfrog Grill, Fourth Street Cafe, Sunset Mortgage Company, Pelzl's Do-It Best Hardware and V and S Variety Store, are some of the businesses that have left the downtown area of Tonganoxie this year.

Pelzl's and V and S closed because its owner retired; Bullfrog Grill and Fourth Street Cafe went out of business. Sunset Mortgage relocated to Basehor.

And recently another downtown business, Holst Pharmacy, broke ground for its new site on U.S. Highway 24-40. The U.S. Postal Service, which operates its post office downtown, is also likely to move out.

"It's just overwhelming that all of this stuff is happening all at once," Tonganoxie Mayor Mike Vestal said. "As mayor, I hate to see it happening. It's nothing that the city government has done, it's just happening."

With only a few new businesses, such as Bitler's BBQ and the Royale, filling the empty spaces left behind, the future of downtown Tonganoxie is up in the air.

"People just don't have a reason to come downtown," said Lana Howe, owner of the Vintage Bath and Soap Shop. "We need more shopping downtown. It's important have more activities downtown to attract more people."

Howe said she wished more people would look downtown to set up their businesses because of its beautiful and historic atmosphere, but she believes it would take a group effort from the community, the Tonganoxie Chamber of Commerce and the city to change the course for Fourth Street.

The city already has taken some steps in that direction. At a Nov. 5 meeting with Buxton, a Fort Worth, Texas, market research firm, the City Council, Planning Commission, chamber and members of the pubic discussed possibilities to stop downtown's bleeding.

No real plan of action was developed at that meeting, but it did generate some ideas and created enough interest that a second meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Dec. 3 at Tonganoxie City Hall.

Mike Yanez, city administrator, took some of the ideas from the meeting and created an unscientific two-page survey to determine some of the shopping and buying habits of local residents.

"I think everybody in Tonganoxie wants to save downtown," Yanez said. "This survey is an attempt to gather information about community attitudes."

Among some of the questions asked are: How often someone goes downtown to visit or shop? What is your favorite store? What would make downtown more appealing? What is the best and what is the most disappointing thing about downtown?

While this survey will not be as accurate and contain as much information as Buxton's detailed information, it will give the city an idea of where to start, Yanez said.

City staff also is pursuing other avenues.

Vestal said the city has been in contact with Zimmer Real Estate Services, the master developer for Village West, about doing some business with Tonganoxie, but he did not have any specific information.

Vestal said he always tries to spend his money locally, and downtown whenever he can, but he knows many businesses want to move to U.S. 24-40 so they can benefit from traffic that is passing through town.

"I really would rather have them downtown before they go to the highway, but you can't stop progress," Vestal said. "I would like to stay small, but you can't always do that."

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