Restaurants in the Washington Street retail spaces in The Commons are the best way to reach the city’s goals of a bustling downtown with the building serving as a community gathering place, according to members of the board overseeing the city-owned building.
Members of The Commons Board polled during the past week said they believe a restaurant best meets the board’s goals of drawing people in to use The Commons, to increase foot traffic downtown and to give a buzz of activity both inside The Commons restaurants and outdoors during the warmer months.
The city has issued a notice to Greenhouse Restaurant LLC, the company holding the lease for the former Scotty’s Burger Joint space in The Commons, that it is in violation of its lease and it has until Friday to get back into compliance.
The company reopened as a Detour American Grille and Bar Jan. 14, but the city is asserting the lease requires the company to operate a Scotty’s franchise at the 310 Washington St. location.
City officials believe that to follow state law they must seek proposals for the space because the previous lease was broken, but they have encouraged Greenhouse to submit a bid with the Detour proposal. The city has yet to start the bid-seeking process while the lease dispute is ongoing.
Mayor Kristen Brown asked The Commons Board to come up with bid parameters, and one key recommendation from the board’s Jan. 9 meeting was to fill the space with a family restaurant containing a bar.
Sherry Stark, president of the board, said the idea of bringing a restaurant to the space was developed for The Commons Board by Columbus Downtown Inc. and Sharon Renfro, the former owner and operator of The Commons Mall.
“We were relying on Sharon Renfro and CDI to seek out tenants for the space,” Stark said.
“The Commons (board members) do not want to be in the landlord business, so we are relying on people with far more experience than we have.”
Stark said city planners have long envisioned the area around Fourth Street being used for restaurants. Studies have identified restaurants and gathering places as being appealing to young professionals, she said. The city expects mostly young professionals to live in the downtown apartments under construction. Stark cited Welcoming Community studies done by Heritage Fund — The Bartholomew County Community Foundation, where Stark used to be president.
Stark has served on The Commons Board both before and after the new Commons was built. She said her recollection is that The Commons Board never seriously discussed other uses for the space, because the board’s consensus has been that a restaurant would best fulfill its goals.
They said a restaurant provides a magnet for downtown, as it would hold people for a time while they socialize, rather than a retail space where people stop in, buy items and leave.
“I would love to see a convenience store and a drug store somewhere in the downtown, particularly to serve the residents of the new apartments that are opening up, but I don’t believe The Commons is the right space for that,” Stark said.
Tracy Souza, a Commons board member under the new and old incarnations of the building and president of the Heritage Fund, said discussions about what should go into the retail space in the new Commons was to find something that “activated” downtown — making downtown a lively and appealing place to spend time.
“The idea going way back to the beginning of The (new) Commons, when we knew we could redo The Commons, was that it ought to be an active place that drew people downtown,” Souza said. “The whole idea of a revitalized downtown was a downtown that had a business plan that worked.”
The Scotty’s restaurant seemed to be working for those goals, Souza said.
“The term we used was a ‘third place.’ Where do you go if you aren’t at work or you aren’t at home?” Souza said.
Ryan Brand, City Council president and a relatively new member of The Commons Board, said it would be open to other persuasive proposals which would show another type of retail that could meet the board’s goals.
He said the board is made up of smart people who are not going to take anything off the table. But the restaurant concept is succeeding at drawing people downtown where they can be seen enjoying themselves inside the building and outside during the warmer weather, he said.
“I think they are pretty happy with the idea of there being a restaurant,” Brand said.
Cheryl Buffo has served on The Commons Board for six years and said the question has come up about using the retail space for a store or museum space, but a restaurant seemed the best fit to her.
“A restaurant is going to be a draw during the day, night and weekends,” she said. “And having service out on the sidewalk brings people to the street front as well.”
Paige Harden, who has served on the board for about two years, said part of the difficulty with other business types is that they may only offer foot traffic at certain times of the day, such as a coffee shop that draws crowds in the morning, or that only appeal to certain people, for example leaving out people who do not drink coffee.
“I think we talked as a board that a restaurant is a space that anyone can enjoy,” Harden said. “It is not specific to families. it is not specific to single people. We want the family of Columbus to come and enjoy The Commons and the family space we created.
“It has been nice, as a person who has come back to Columbus and chosen this as my forever community, to have a place to go socially,” she said. “It seems like you can reach the most number of people comfortably with a restaurant. Most people can come down and find something they like to eat and sit and socialize with their friends.”
At least one local restaurant owner agrees with the board that The Commons is a great location for a restaurant with a bar.
David Simmons, co-owner of Simmons Winery, was interested in the space when it was first being considered for a restaurant two years ago, and could be interested again, he said. However, since then he and his wife Brenda have opened their own restaurant and brewpub near Hope.
“We looked at that space and we looked at it a lot,” Simmons said. “That was a space we really wanted because at that time our plans were to have an actual brewpub, where we would have a brewery inside and a full-service restaurant and we could sell our wines.
“For us, the downtown Columbus area was the best spot. That was the best spot we ever looked at. It offered, in my opinion, pretty competitive terms for leasing. I thought it would be really good for the (public) space above it. That would draw in a lot of people. That would give us the opportunity to cater up there, supplying our beer and wine.”
But in 2011, under Columbus Downtown Inc., the bid process was closed and Simmons said he did not get a fair chance to make his case. He welcomes the city’s new direction in opening the process up for proposals.
“I think if they did it again, where there was a selection process where everybody came in front of a subjective board or commission, it would be the best way to do it,” Simmons said.