DDA officials hit the streets to meet downtown merchants
By Risa Polansky
Merchants in the Central Business District are enthusiastic about downtown Miami's potential to become a thriving hub for retail. But they're concerned about security and aesthetics and worry that there will be a lack of big-name stores that could attract other vendors.
To pinpoint the concerns of its taxpayers, the Downtown Development Authority did not solicit opinions through a survey or suggestion box. But board members and officials along with representatives of the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County and other downtown agencies hoofed it down Flagler Street on a walking tour of downtown Friday.
"It was very important for us to go out, talk to merchants, find out what's going on downtown," said Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez, chairman of the DDA. "When you're up on the 29th floor, you don't see what's happening in the streets. You don't see the cracks in the sidewalks, you don't see the lights out on a streetlight."
While he and authority officials were quick to note Flagler Street's potted and hanging plants and the uniformed maintenance crew pressure-cleaning the sidewalk, Mr. Sanchez did not hesitate to gesture to graffiti, unleveled sewer covers and stagnant water in the streets.
"These are the things we don't see from an office or a board meeting," he said. "People want beautification, people want cleanup. That's what the people deserve."
The $10 million Flagler streetscape project is a start, said Dana Nottingham, authority executive director. "It's subtle but powerful. It shows how simple things can make a difference. When you're in a main street district, you want to look around and see somebody cares."
Keep caring, Antonio Alonso of La Epoca department store, 200 E. Flagler St., said when the tour popped into his store.
"Just look around and you can see a state of disarray. The street, the signs — it's a dismal appearance," he said. "I've been told downtown Miami looks like a Third World country. I'm ashamed."
To attract more upscale retailers, vital in elevating the status of downtown, "we need to look perfect," he said. "We need to look sharp."
Marketing is also crucial, he said. "The DDA needs to help get these tenants. Let's romance it. Bring out all the guns. When they come, seven other merchants come."
Improving the landmark Macy's store would be a start, Mr. Alonso said. "I think we need to persuade Macy's to invest $10 million to $20 million and refurbish their store."
Board member Neisen Kasdin called Macy's the development authority's "No. 1 development target." Representatives of the department store have complained recently about conditions downtown and have raised the possibility that the retailer may move out of the area.
In attracting other retailers and restaurants, the Downtown Miami Tenant Grant Program will be key, said Josie Legido Correa, executive director of the Downtown Miami Partnership.
Implemented in June, the program reimburses tenants for improvements or build-out.
"The fact that we have a carrot to offer to people to come into the Central Business District has been phenomenal," Ms. Correa said.
Gilberto Buitrago, who opened Optimystik Fashion Eyewear at 110 E. Flagler St. about two months ago, welcomed the development authority tour into his store, raving that he came downtown "because I think Miami will have one of the greatest downtowns in the East. I really believe in downtown. I believe there's a future."
The tour also stopped at The Children's Place, 118 E. Flagler St., where Benjamin Robles, assistant manager, said shoplifting, especially by the homeless, is his store's biggest concern.
Mr. Sanchez immediately called a police officer into the store to address the issue.
Miami police commander William Alvarez said officers arrest 500 shoplifters a month and keep a list of "chronic criminals."
Mr. Sanchez said the city is "going through the hiring process" for more officers.
Also in the works are plans to improve area transportation.
Because bus service on Flagler Street was eliminated when it became two-way, the county will offer a new shuttle bus on Flagler Street beginning May 21 that will connect to Metrorail, the Port of Miami and Bayside, said Bob Pearsall, manager of service planning for Miami-Dade County Transit.
That kind of convenience along with cleanliness and safety will revitalize downtown, Mr. Sanchez said.
"The whole downtown experience, the whole success for downtown, is people need to feel safe, keep coming back," he said. "They need to have a pleasant experience."