Why Open a Business in Over-the-Rhine Now?

In this post-riot, recession and war-burdened economy, who would dare open or expand a business in Over-the-Rhine? The answer is a young woman, a long-time business owner and a business backer, amo

Jan 10, 2002 at 2:06 pm

In this post-riot, recession and war-burdened economy, who would dare open or expand a business in Over-the-Rhine?

The answer is a young woman, a long-time business owner and a business backer, among others.

Becca McGraw and her friends began kicking around the idea for a new downtown nightclub two years ago. The idea evolved into Karma — a place for young professionals to dance if they want, or sit down and talk without having to shout. Not another spot for the "show up and throw up crowd" that inhabits other Main Street bars, says McGraw, sitting in Karma's lounge area on a sofa in front of a glass-topped table.

Two years of location scouting led McGraw and her investors to Jackson Street, just north of Central Parkway, in a building that once hosted a cab company. They signed a lease days before the April riots broke out. McGraw shrugs off questions about how much buyer's remorse she might feel.

"We all felt that Over-the-Rhine would bounce back," she says.

Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and war in Afghanistan, which didn't encourage people to go out for a night on the town.

But there was no turning back; the lease was signed.

McGraw's phone, sitting on the table next to two Rolodexes, rings frequently. There's a box of club-style lights to her left. The place still looks a little out of order, but she didn't save any room for pessimism.

Karma opened in November. McGraw says it's doing fine, considering everything. None of the clubs did the business they wanted to on New Year's Eve. Karma's weekly networking nights have helped a bit.

McGraw believes Over-the-Rhine is destined to be redeveloped; in five years, today's problems will look like a hiccup. McGraw also believes Karma's real test will be surviving the summer.

A few blocks away on Main Street, Julie Fay sits at a desk surrounded by "good design" — sleek watches by Skagen, a German firm; cute and colorful reproductions of 1950s furniture; and the Pit and the Pendulum, a metal point hanging over a small sandbox. One nudge and the tip carves mathematically perfect designs in the sand.

Fay's business, ISI Services Main Street, opened Nov. 30 in a vacant space next to other boutique furniture and art stores.

"Basically, it looked a little dismal with the holidays approaching," says Fay, president of Merchants of Main Street.

So Fay convinced ISI Services of Forest Park to stock the store with its office furniture, including popular contoured, fabric-backed office chairs. She convinced the building's owner to offer a short-term lease. Other suppliers rounded out the stock, and Christmas went well.

Fay isn't sure how much longer she'll spend 28-hour weeks in the store. Maybe a month more; maybe longer. Then it's back to the task of finding a permanent business for the storefront, which is going well for others.

Fay points out there are at least three other new businesses around the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Main Street, including a hair-goods store and a couple of clothing stores.

Two months ago Mark Fisk moved his business, Mainly Art, a couple of doors south on the 1300 block of Main Street, next to the storefront now used by ISI Services. Now he has almost three times the space to sell his retro furniture, art and other specialty items.

Most of Fisk's customers live in other cities, such as New York and Chicago. To them, panhandling is a fact of life — not a threat, he says.

"You might have to talk to a person," he says. "Yikes!"

But some really do say "Yikes!" when visiting Over-the-Rhine. Those are the people the city should give up on, says Fisk, whose business has been in Over-the-Rhine for 16 years.

Fisk looked in Oakley and Hyde Park, then expanded on Main Street because it's still one of the most affordable and best-located streets in Cincinnati for what he sells.

The riot could help Over-the-Rhine in the long term, Fisk says. It sent a message people other than business owners are in Over-the-Rhine, and they have an interest in the neighborhood.

People who think they can move away from the problems faced by older cities need to wake up, Fisk says. Crime and poverty leapfrog city borders when they are ignored.

"You can run, but you can't hide," he says.