Coconut Grove leaders want to strengthen retail district, improve mix of businesses
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
With retail complexes in nearby Brickell and Coral Gables stealing the spotlight, Coconut Grove business and civic leaders agree the area needs a transformation.
Some blame merchants for the turnover, insisting retail owners give up too fast on the Grove and don't do enough to reach potential shoppers.
"Sometimes people come from another country wanting to open up a store or restaurant," said Liliana Dones, president of the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce and member of the Coconut Grove Village Council, but said some fail to market their business well. "Market consistency is key and you have to do it in any number of ways."
Grove merchants' pending approval of the business improvement district could inject much-need vitality into the retail corridor, supporters say.
David Collins, executive director of the Coconut Grove Business Improvement Committee, a city-funded group formed in 2004 with the intent to transition it into the now-proposed business improvement district, said other factors exist.
Mr. Collins said some open businesses but fail to invest enough time and money in marketing the space and proactively inviting the community to visit them. He said these types of owners usually don't last long. Another factor to consider is that sales are cyclical, meaning the Grove has always had its high and low periods in shopper traffic and sales.
The Grove's commercial arm includes two open-air malls, CocoWalk and Streets of Mayfair, and other street-level shops and boutiques.
The Grove's competition is fiercer than in the past, with nearby shopping destinations such as Miracle Mile. Its own Business Improvement District was re-approved in August 2007 and it has launched a marketing campaign to re-energize the brand locally and regionally.
Another younger competitor is Mary Brickell Village, and tourist hot-spot Miami Beach, which Mr. Collins said make it tougher for the Grove to pull the numbers of visitors it did in earlier decades.
"The Grove is not going to come back as part of the natural cycle because competition has changed," he said. "The BID is the only plan on the table in terms of improvements, and that's why many small businesses and big property owners are participating in the efforts."
He warns the effort is a "non-ending" one.
The area needs to reinvent itself and grow with the times, he said.
For example, the retail mix needs more variety that fits the needs and wants of not only tourists and visitors but of Grovites too.
And the local restaurant industry needs new menu selections, Mr. Collins said.
That's especially the case with the Grove's core benefiting from incoming office tenants, such as Sony BMG, set to move into the Mayfair complex in October.
Its 120 employees are going to need more lunch options. Mr. Collins said he is encouraging some existing restaurants to open for lunch to accommodate them.
Ms. Dones, the president of Coconut Grove Chamber, said she is confident that Sony Music's presence is going to help stimulate the area.
If the proposed business improvement district gains approved, Mr. Collins said, it plans new retail recruitment programs to "go after restaurants and stores people want."
With the focus at hand to bring more tenants to suit the shopping wants of residents, the to-be-voted-on district is to hold focus groups of Grove residents to learn what businesses they want to see coming in.
The current retail mix includes restaurants, high-end jewelry stores, boutique shops, brand-name apparel stores, hair salons and other beauty-oriented businesses.
"I've never seen a beauty place go out of business in the Grove," Ms. Dones said.
Recent additions to the Grove's retail mix include a Chili's restaurant, Steven Anton Rehage, Anokha Indian Restaurant and Congas Guayaberas store, Grove officials said. Meanwhile, the likes of Qdoba Mexican Grill, Lavish and clothing store Life is Good have said goodbye to the Grove's tree-lined streets.
The Grove needs to be more aggressive to lure in new tenants, Mr. Collins said. "I am looking to stabilize that influx and take some calculated gambles, not just big risks."
He said one clear candidate would be Trader Joe's, a specialty retail grocery that currently has no stores in Florida, and the area could use more women's apparel stores.
"I am going to be excited about having new stores come in based on the interests Grovites have," he said.
Mayfair in the Grove, a largely hotel and retail complex, recently got its wish to convert a sizeable chunk of retail space into offices.
The Miami City Commission approved Grovites' request to convert some street-level retail space into office use, with hopes to fill empty storefronts and lure office workers to become patrons of area retail stores and restaurants.
Mayfair transformed about 43,000 square feet of retail into office space, said Sim Wilson, first vice president of the brokerage services division of CB Richard Ellis in Miami, the real estate management company for Mayfair.
When the retail market began to shrink in Coconut Grove, Mr. Wilson said, the firm had to decide how to lease the space.
Turning some of the ground-level retail into office space seemed the best option, he said.
And so far, Mr. Wilson said, the switch has proven successful, "a lot more activity as office."
The real estate company has secured leases with advertising agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, which relocated its Grove offices to the complex, Mr. Wilson said. The Sony BMG space is wrapping up construction as the group is moving in soon, and Marc USA, a national advertising agency, is also inked.
"It's been a snowball effect. Once you get these types of names there it validates the area," he said.
Mr. Wilson said the shortcomings in retail are prompting other changes in Mayfair. It plans to bring more restaurants and boutique retail shops to the retail side.
"There is still less retail overall in the Grove then there ever was, and the economy is probably not helping us," he said. "If people aren't spending money, retail suffers."