News: Buying Outside the Big Box

Oakley businesses see positive side of new development

Natalie Hager

Bookstore owner John Hutton hopes he can continue to draw customers.

If the terms "sprawl" and "big box retail" seem to rankle residents of Cincinnati's quirky Oakley neighborhood, a short drive up Madison Road might explain why.

The old Oakley Square oozes cozy urban living, from the historic 20th Century Theater to the rows of brick-fronted one-off shops. The neighborhood is inviting, non-invasive and begs passers-by to park their cars and take in the ambiance on foot.

One block past trendy restaurant Pho Paris, however, the vibe changes. The railroad underpass on Madison Road marks an end to the square's wide sidewalks. After a quick left on Marburg Avenue, the buildings grow from quaint storefronts to massive concrete boxes.

Hundreds upon hundreds of parking spaces set the road far back from Meijer, Circuit City and various incarnations of Sam Walton's empire; the distance only emphasizes their mass. In December, this was a sea of dented doors and angry consumers. Now its nearly empty stretches glow under halogen lights, whose yellow glare turns the sky into a black ceiling that barely clears the buildings.

On a small spit of weedy grass and moth-eaten trees, a row of aging houses and apartment buildings sit squeezed between the parking lot and the lights and noise of the I-71/Norwood Lateral intersection. A sign is wired to the chain-link fence surrounding two of the houses.

In bold black letters, it declares, "Properties Not for Sale."

Personality sells
The neighborhood is changing again, and in a big way. Construction begins later this year on Cincinnati Millworks, a mixed-use retail and office complex planned for the former Cincinnati Milacron industrial park.

When complete, Millworks will feature a 3,400-seat movie theater complex, nearly half a million square feet of office space and enough retail capacity to handle 800,000 shoppers at its peak. Adding to the draw is the main anchor tenant, the first off-site expansion of Fairfield-based exotic food superstore Jungle Jim's Market.

It would be reasonable to expect Oakley's small businesses to brace for a fight. After all, an Internet search on the words "big box retail" pulls up a dizzying list of news clippings and page after page of propaganda for both sides of the debate over these aggressive retail giants that dominate modern commerce.

It's surprising, then, that the attitudes of Oakley Square store owners range from wait-and-see pragmatism to guarded optimism.

"I can't say that that has really affected us at all," says Oakley Cycles' David Ariosa of the nearby developments.

The shop specializes in high-end bicycles for racers and serious enthusiasts, a demographic that Ariosa believes would not be lost to the big retail chains.

"We're more of a specialty retail outlet destination," he says.

In fact, he suggests that the Rookwood Commons development, just to the south of Oakley Square, has actually helped sales by attracting more of that target demographic to the area.

John Hutton, owner of Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore and Decafe, is only slightly more cautious about the development.

"I personally don't dwell on it much," he says. "As far as business goes, it remains to be seen."

Independent children's bookstores are a rare and fading breed, but Hutton is confident that his store's unique selection and personal service will differentiate it from the national bookselling chains.

"If we can be the best we can be, we'll continue to draw (customers)," he says.

It stands to reason that a shop selling $2,000 bicycles or small-press children's books would have little to worry about from a major retailer — their products are simply too unique. On the other hand, one would expect an independent toy store to be dead in the crosshairs of every major retailer that might move into the expanding development.

Miles Altman, owner of King Arthur's Court Toys, has a surprising response when asked about Millworks.

"My general feeling is that it's ultimately a good thing," he says.

Like Ariosa and Hutton, Altman sees the expanded developments attracting more of his targeted customer base to the area. He has confidence in the traits that raise his store far above the 12-foot-tall aisles in the back corner of Target and Meijer.

"We're a specialty store," Altman says. "We carry special items and have a knowledgeable staff."

From offering unique toy brands to providing room for customers to play, he believes King Arthur's Court is unique enough to draw a dedicated group of customers.

"Most of (the businesses) in the old Oakley corridor remain vibrant by offering that type of environment," he says. "I think people want that."

Jungle food
The small, independent retailers on Oakley Square have placed their faith in the same general philosophy: that unique, knowledgeable merchants will always have a dedicated customer base. Judging by the early actions of Millworks' anchor tenant, some of the bigger retailers moving into the area might take their cues from a similar philosophy.

Jungle Jim's Fairfield location is a sprawling, 285,000-square-foot maze of everyday groceries, exotic dishes from around the globe and found decorations that often border on the bizarre. Since it opened in 1971, the constantly growing complex has become a destination for both bargain-hunting suburban residents and homesick ex-pats looking for comfort food.

Shoppers familiar with Jungle Jim's might be surprised by the new store when it opens in late 2007 or early 2008, according to Phill Adams, the company's director of development. The 75,000-plus square-foot Oakley location, while not small by any measure, will offer a much more focused product line than its bigger parent store.

"There are six or seven great (grocery) retailers around here; we don't want to get into that war," he says.

Instead of offering everything for everyone, the Oakley store will cater to shoppers looking for niche products, such as imported cheeses and specialty foods that can't be found at traditional grocers.

The Oakley location's decor will retain the larger store's eclectic sensibilities, but Adams says it will also include some type of exhibit recognizing the former Kirk and Blum building's nearly 100-year history.

"The building was the biggest part of why we decided to go there," he says. "We looked at five or six other sites, but they were all 'plain vanilla box' type buildings." ©

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