Charting a future for retail in downtown Sioux City 

 

In the era of shopping centers, big box stores and unlimited growth, does retail planning and downtown matter? Yes, say the experts, and here's why.

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

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Does It Matter?
It should. Ultimately, advanced planning determines if an area of town flourishes or flounders. So a healthy retail region is vital, or the tax dollars of other areas have to support a place like downtown, since a lack of businesses does not mean a lack of roads and other costly items. But retail conditions nationwide have been going downhill for about two years, the result of dot-com failures, sagging stock markets, and downsizing. And downtowns have been under assault far longer. So, is continued investment in downtown Sioux City wise? It is an important question, since the dollars are still flowing to the downtown region.

Photo by Thomas Ritchie

A For Lease sign sits in a window across the street from the MLK Transportation Center, which has 35,000 sq. ft. of retail space.

Consider these numbers: 350,000 square feet of retail and office space is for rent in downtown Sioux City. Yet the city just finished a major parking facility - the Martin Luther King Jr. Transportation Center - which includes another 35,000 square feet of additional rental space. But a block away, one storefront has been empty for the past seven years.

An even more sobering number: In 2000, sales at the 2,605 retailers in Woodbury County, were down 0.3 percent over 1976.

These issues are not new, but the debate raged again a few weeks ago when the City Council was asked to renew the Self Supported Municipal Improvement District (SMID) in downtown for another five years. Created 10 years ago, the SMID has its own board of directors that oversees the activities of Downtown Partners. Last year, taxes funded the organization with $240,000, and other funds brought the total 2003 budget to $311,000, a hefty chunk of change for a small group whose main responsibility is to help downtown retailers and restaurants speak as one voice.

Like the business revolt on Gordon Drive a year ago when the city proposed restricting traffic again after a tough summer of road construction, the resulting blowup highlighted the difference of opinion between the city and some of its taxpayers. The bottom line is: does the city realize what impact its decisions have on the businesses, and ultimately, the taxpayers? The question asked by citizens becomes, does the city have a plan, and is it the correct one?

In talking with various leaders who hold a piece of the puzzle to the development of Sioux City retail, I found a rich vein of irony. Both sides repeatedly quote the same facts that headed this story: the loss of businesses downtown, the change over the years in shopping habits. But the lessons drawn from these facts are startlingly different. 

 A plan normally represents a one-way street, with everyone heading in the same direction, like the streets in downtown Sioux City. However, interpreting the signs leads to four different views of retail planning in Sioux City.

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