Charting a future for retail in downtown Sioux City 

 

Retail planning in Sioux City has been under scrutiny lately, and much of it spurred by actions in the Downtown Partners office. Here's the view from their side of the street.

By Russ Gifford
(Originally published in The Weekender, 04/03/03)

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Photo by Mike Northrup

Looking east from Downtown Partners, Sioux City's retail future is bright, says Roger Caudron. On the wall in Caudron's office is a map which shows the downtown business and property owners who say they support the voluntary tax, or SMID, on the downtown area which funds Downtown Partners.

East, from Downtown Partners.
Roger Caudron, executive director of Downtown Partners, knows the challenges of overseeing a retail marketing coalition. "Malls survive because they are a dictatorship," says Caudron. "The stores in a mall are forced to pay marketing fees as part of their rental contract, as well as costs for upkeep of the public areas."

He points to a map of the Downtown Partners district. "There are 220 taxable properties downtown, owned by 125 different owners. Two hundred of the businesses are separate from the building owner. And all of them are pulling in a different direction." The idea of Downtown Partners is to provide a structure, to focus all these people who have a stake in the success of downtown as a shopping district.

Caudron, though, can't look too longingly at the mall's marketing funding from rent. His organization has an ability that malls surely envy: the SMID, the voluntary tax on the downtown area.

The money provides marketing for the downtown area, events such as June Jam and the Chili Cookoff, business development programs as well as the property rental and staff salaries for Downtown Partners' three employees.

The programs, designed to improve the district and businesses downtown, have included providing money for facade grants to owners wishing to improve the looks of their building, a gap loan program to fill the difference between what a commercial business loan might provide, and what is needed by the borrower to make their business project a reality.

"With all the additional competition, we have to market ourselves to be noticed" he says. "Downtown is not the same to people as it was in the 1950s. Then it was a destination."

Marketing and events might bring some new faces downtown, but Caudron has a vision: he'd like to make downtown a place to live. "Remember 10 years ago, and compare it to now, and you'll see we are pushing toward that 24 hour neighborhood, thanks to the new attractions in downtown," he says.

Most notable is the Orpheum Theatre, of course. But he sees the renewal of downtown with an expansion of apartments, like the redesigned library into the Carnegie Place Apartments and the assisted living units in the Martin Apartments. Caudron thinks downtown, with the restored buildings and renewed activities, will be an inviting place to live. His dream includes the creation of 1,500-sq.-feet condos or luxury upscale apartments to lure people back downtown, people who will then provide a customer base for the retail stores that would populate a downtown area.

"Back in the 1930's the corner market carried basic staples. The same will become needed as people start living here," he says. And upscale condos would also mean upscale stores, as well. "This is our 'theatre district,'" says Caudron.

"Downtown will not be as big a retail center," he says. "Our future is niche markets." The good news - niche markets are smaller, and will attract the small, start up businesses we need. "Downtown today is a business incubator, really."

New stores that are planning to open downtown include Cyberbar, an internet cafŽ that will open in May, and a Famous Dave's BBQ, which is working out final details for a restaurant on Pierce Street. Caudron notes that the groundbreaking for the new multiplex theater near historic Fourth Street is slated for April 9, with completion in May 2004. Other businesses will follow, he says.

People overlook a few important facts about the downtown market. According to sales tax reports, Caudron says, there's $180 million in retail sales annually in the downtown district. If you factor out the money generated by the Southern Hills Hy-Vee, "since downtown doesn't have a grocery store," that's roughly the same annual income as generated by the Southern Hills Mall. "Sioux City successfully staved off what other cities suffered - the loss of their downtowns to malls," says Caudron. "The next step is the refinement of downtown."

Caudron says Downtown Partners is key to that refinement. Not everyone sees it that way. In 1998, the City Council, which authorized the SMID in 1993, renewed the district for an additional five years. This time, however, the first council meeting saw a challenge to the Downtown Partners renewal request, even though they have 77 percent of the taxable property signed to the renewal petition. "That's more than originally supported the SMID when the city created it," says Caudron. 

So what has Downtown Partners achieved in the past 10 years? Expanded marketing, for the most part. Brochures are available in every hotel room in the city, along with select media advertising, and the creation of the Downtown Partners web site. He also points to the additional donated funding Downtown Partners receives now. These are sponsorships and event underwriting, "allowing the SMID money to be devoted to programs and operations, rather than events themselves," he says. Caudron also notes the role of Downtown Partners in the recruitment of Civic Partners for the Theatre Development Project and the "Welcome to Sioux City" sign that sits in front of Chili's restaurant.

Yet, even though he has a greater percentage of approvals for the renewal petition than the council required in 1998, the matter was tabled until the April 7 council meeting. "We have a plan, and we are executing it," he says. "There will always be naysayers."

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