ne characteristic of a bar-based entertainment district is that such businesses must adapt in order to keep up with the latest trends. It’s just the nature of the bar industry, according to Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce President Brian L. Tiffany, who says the Main Street bar district’s struggles during recent years are not uncommon.
“A friend of mine always used to say, ‘Your bar has to be like Madonna — you have to reinvent yourself or you’ll be closed,’ ” Tiffany says. “I think if you look at the Central Business District, even the Lodge Bar’s closed ... you’re seeing the same thing.”
Tiffany, who has worked for the Chamber for a number of years, says such businesses present a fundamental problem when it comes to building a community.
“The problem is that promoters really don’t care about what impact that business has on the neighborhood — all they care about is getting the cover charge,” he says.
So while the Main Street of yesteryear might have thrived between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., its growth as a business district never materialized during that time. But once the nightclubs fled the struggling area during the 2000s, new urbanites, attracted to the newly refurbished lofts and cheaper spaces on Main and other newer Over-the-Rhine spots, began trickling in.
These new residents were less interested in the all-night party atmosphere of old Main, thus offering the street something it hadn’t had for decades: a chance to reinvent itself as something more.
“Main Street was kind of like a slate, and it was wiped clean,” Tiffany says.
The New Main Street
“I love living on Main Street,” says Caleb Mathern, who calls a space above Iris Bookcafe home. “I buy books and Myra’s soups from Iris. In the summer, Neon’s is my oasis. And Sierra and Leah and Tim from forkheartknife are the friendliest, most-accommodating people ever.”
“Dan Korman is like our mayor — we were only too happy to steal him from Vine (Street). And if I ever do feel like wandering two blocks over, there’s Tabb serving up craft beer at the best corner pub in the city, the Lackman, not to mention Senate, MiCA 12/v and Little Mahatma. It’s the best damn community in the city and what’s shocking is that one, two years ago it didn’t exist. And it’s growing.”
Mathern’s outlook recognizes two key factors: 1) the Gateway Quarter was, in fact, essential to the re-emergence of Main Street; and 2) Park Vine Owner Dan Korman is a really, really popular guy in OTR.
After outgrowing its space on Vine, Korman moved his green general store Park Vine to 1202 Main St. (in the old Kaldi’s Coffee House), which offered enough additional space to increase his inventory to include dry goods, open a drink bar and plan an outdoor space (slated to open soon as a sort of “permaculture patio”).
“We more than doubled our space, we more than doubled our inventory, we more than doubled the number of employees. We’ve become this little economic engine,” Korman says. “Main Street helped revitalize our business. As much as we’re a part of the street, the street has revitalized our store as well.”
Korman describes how the tight business community is working together to promote and improve the area. They hold independent “Merchants of Main” meetings, and a few of them even live in the same apartment building.
Park Vine was part of the “Fall Class of 2010,” Korman says, along with MOTR Pub. Smaller merchants such as Losantiville, Yes Gallery and MUD popped up, and other galleries like CS13 moved in. The Drinkery opened in the Jackpots former location, and award-winning mixologist Molly Wellman is in the process of re-opening Japps.
The variety of businesses is bringing different types of visitors to the neighborhood during all hours of the day, which makes the area more attractive to new residents and visitors.
“I get a lot of people coming in my shop that live out of town,” says Katie Garber of her vintage shop Atomic Number Ten at 1306 Main. “Most of them are in disbelief that OTR is considered a ‘bad area’ and they eagerly ask what stores, bars and restaurants are within walking distance. If everyone could just come with an open mind and spend a Saturday afternoon walking around Over-the-Rhine, I think they’d be pleasantly surprised.”
How It Happened
Today’s Main Street didn’t appear overnight, and it can’t be explained without a bit of credit going to Vine Street’s steady growth and a direct monetary influence by the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce.
But the gradual success that urban pioneers, streetscapers and 3CDC found in the Gateway Quarter was initially difficult to replicate on Main, partly because the gallery-lined street seemed to only be open one day each month: Final Friday. To facilitate business growth, the Chamber began using its Business First Grant, the mission of which is “to benefit the city by stabilizing the business environment, increase business and employment opportunities, while simultaneously animating the streets and sidewalks of OTR.”
The grant serves as a subsidy to help Main Street landlords secure longer leases rather than sign the cheaper short-term and month-to-month leases with businesses that have little interest in the neighborhood’s future. Tiffany says the grant will cover four months of rent during the first year for businesses that sign at least a three-year lease.
“So now you’ve got a new business coming in that has an incentive to sign a three-year lease and a landlord with an incentive to look at a longer-term lease,” Tiffany says. “It really created stability.”
Garber received a Business First Grant to open Atomic Number Ten, which helped pay for tangible expenses, such as a laptop, store fixtures, tracks lights and a desk.
“It was an incentive to open in OTR and helped to make the process doable on a small budget,” she says.
And Garber’s certainly not the only business on Main that has benefitted from the grant.
“I actually can’t believe how much I’ve seen Main Street change in one-and-a-half years,” she says. “Since I opened in September 2009, four retail shops have opened, three bars, three galleries and a restaurant, all within three blocks of Main Street.”
Dan McCabe of MOTR Pub says his group would still be trying to get the doors open if not for the Chamber’s guidance and the grant. Instead, MOTR is quickly becoming known as a staple in the new Main Street as a neighborhood pub offering food, drinks and live music.
McCabe describes the common feeling among the people currently shaping the neighborhood’s future: “I love the spirit of adventure on Main Street. You can reach in and affect your surroundings — that is the ultimate creative expression.”