Downtown Miami gets its hour of respect as turnaround takes hold
By Michael Lewis
When economists and historians someday try to pinpoint the instant when downtown Miami made its dramatic turnaround from derided inner city to acclaimed driving force for a region, it just might have been 6 p.m. Friday, July 2, 2010.
That's the minute when Macy's — heir to downtown's retail heritage — began staying open an extra hour Fridays and Saturdays to serve later customers on streets that until very recently rolled up the sidewalks and rolled down the metal shutters on store windows when office workers went home.
Macy's — that's the retail chain that in December 2006 began complaining about the city's streetscape and arranging to pack its bags and flee the site that had been home to Florida's primary department store since 1911.
Then all hell broke loose when six months later the chain's Florida chairman stood up before the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and complained about downtown safety and cleanliness and threatened in public to shut the store.
Like late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, downtown interests that had for years tried to improve the area's environment and image could have been forgiven for moaning that the area don't get no respect.
Immediately thereafter, Macy's sought an incentive package from the city to redo its corporate headquarters in the 840,000-square-foot store.
It's been less than a year and a half since Macy's, minus any city incentives, closed its regional headquarters on the sixth floor of that 22 E Flagler St. store and wiped out all 600 headquarters jobs. The chain blamed the economy.
Today, what was the sixth-floor training site is home to Florida International University graduate programs — which, not so coincidentally, have been expanding rapidly as downtown rebounds.
The signs of downtown resurgence are everywhere — spotty in bad economic times but clear.
Most evident are young occupants of thousands of new condominiums. The fact that they're predominantly renters at far below what was recently market rate doesn't rain on the parade of restaurateurs and merchants who benefit from the residential hordes in an office district.
These, after all, are waves of young and eager consumers where few were before.
Remember all that talk about the downtown revitalization that housing would bring? Well, it's here.
The downtown Macy's was once Burdine's and then Burdines without the apostrophe back in the days when the city's core was spelled downtown and not dwntwn, which followed Burdines in knocking characters out of names.
The character of Burdines was further reduced when Florida's Store, as it was called, became Macy's, which is better known as New York's store although it's based in either Cincinnati, its corporate headquarters, or San Francisco, its corporate office. (Customers have to fill out a form on the Macy's web site just to get an e-mail letting them know how to contact those corporate offices.)
So what led this outside store chain to sink roots an inch — or hour — deeper in a downtown where, management had been complaining, it was harder and harder to operate?
Was it the crowded new restaurants packed on weekends with young consumers?
Was it the thousands of new downtown residents with unmaxed credit cards?
Did the street repairs and downtown cleanups and Downtown Development Authority street patrols finally reach critical mass?
The catalyst certainly wasn't LeBron James signing a contract to play basketball downtown, which seems to be the focus of everyone else who thinks downtown is reviving. The additional Macy's hours came ahead of that.
Whatever combination of factors gave Macy's the moxie to add hours until 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in an economic slide, it's a milestone for a resurgent downtown.
Though, to be perfectly honest, it's also a milestone that future historians and economists will probably note far more than we will today. The added hours slipped well under the radar of almost everyone — including Macy's.
Last Friday at 6 p.m., an hour before its extended day ended, Macy's still was noting on its local web site downtown closings Fridays and Saturdays at 6.
Dwntwn just don't get no respect.