Storefronts at forefront

ST. MARYS — A local development official says he plans to start marketing a downtown storefront once the tenant moves out in the coming weeks.

Last year, the St. Marys Community Improvement Corporation inked a deal to take over the three storefronts below Hotel Fort Barbee. Part of the deal included approximately $150,000 in renovations to the storefront, which would be recouped through rent payments under lease agreements. Two of the storefronts have long-term tenants — Peak Submission and the St. Marys School District — while the third will see its tenant move out in November.

“We’ve had it rented for six months as an office for a contractor working on some highway projects,” St. Marys Development Manager Todd Fleagle said. “The lease is up in November and after the lease expires, we’ll put an ad in the paper and see if we can get some interest.”

Before leasing to the contractor, Fleagle said his office received a few inquiries into the office, but nothing that developed. Ideally, the space would be leased as an office or to a retailer, he said.

“I’ve made some contacts in regard to retail businesses and have not heard anything back — positive or negative,” Fleagle said. “We’d like a long-term tenant, either retail or business. We have a shell with handicapped accessible bathrooms, but any other improvements would be up to the tenant.”

Occupying a downtown storefront has its perks. Fleagle said leases often are cheaper than at strip malls.

“I think it all depends on what your costs are,” Fleagle said. “When you’re downtown, it’s an incubator situation where you have lower leases and rents available. You could probably get into the storefronts fairly inexpensively.”

Fleagle touted the partnership between the school district and the CIC regarding the lease deal. The district is in the second year of a five-year lease.

“I think the school district and CIC are pleased,” Fleagle said. “We have a guaranteed check coming in every month and that storefront was abandoned for five or six years. The CIC stepped up to do some improvements there and if we get to the point there they (the school district) don’t want to continue to lease, we have a great office space in the future, but we are still years away from that.”

In general, when Fleagle shows prospective developers properties around the city, they ask for traffic patterns. That is one of the major reasons he cited as to why businesses often seek the outskirts of the city for development.

“What we show clients, and it’s the case anywhere, are traffic patterns,” Fleagle said. “Some of the businesses coming in, I’ve shown them and the interest isn’t downtown — it’s the high traffic. That’s not just in St. Marys, it’s downtowns in general. They want to be on the highway with great exposure and access.”

To be successful, Fleagle said downtown businesses must develop a niche that sets them apart from the larger corporations. Fleagle said the businesses in St. Marys have done that in recent years.

“You have to have a niche where you provide services and products that customers may not be able to get at the larger stores,” Fleagle said. “There are some good things happening downtown with Jeremy Holtzapple’s group (St. Marys Community Partnership) and they have some great thoughts that I think will help downtown.”

Another vital aspect to downtown is getting building owners active in the development process. Without that, Fleagle said only so much can be done.

“Another thing that has to be looked at is that property owners who own buildings downtown have to have spaces that are rentable,” Fleagle said. “You cannot have a business where you tell them you will be putting in heating and AC after that fact, that should be done first. Have the space and utilities ready to go.”