Glenwood businesses, residents collaborate to build on momentum

vbridges@newsobserver.comDecember 23, 2013 

— For nearly a month, Donna Belt and others have gathered on Friday afternoons in her Glenwood South studio to knit and crochet sweaters for about 70 trees in the neighborhood.

More than 40 people, including artists, residents, business owners, employees and those who just love hanging out in the area near downtown Raleigh, have helped make the sweaters, said Belt, who owns SpiritWorks, an art and writing studio in the Carter building near the Hillsborough Street end of Glenwood Avenue.

“We are thrilled with the response,” Belt said.

The “Tree Sweaters for Glenwood” campaign is spearheaded by the new Glenwood South Neighborhood Collaborative, a group of business owners, residents and downtown advocates who have come together to address internal strife and growing competition, including the booming Fayetteville Street area.

The collaborative idea came about three months ago when a handful of business owners and advocates started discussing issues that included complaints to the Raleigh City Council about late-night noise in the neighborhood.

“I told the business owners, ‘We can either keep fighting with tenants, and we can keep this up – everybody trying to look out for themselves – or we can look out for each other,’ ” said Alex Amra, owner of Glenwood South’s Tobacco Road Sports Café and the temporarily - closed bar Amra’s.

On Dec. 9, about 80 business owners, residents, downtown and city representatives met at nearby Hampton Inn & Suites to voice their concerns and start discussing opportunities for improvement.

The meeting included representatives from the city, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, Downtown Living Advocates and Shop Local Raleigh.

“It’s a nice blend of all the different parties with a vested interest and powers that be ... to come together and move forward in one joint effort,” said Sara Fitzpatrick, owner of The Cupcake Shoppe at 104 Glenwood Ave.

The goals of the group, Amra said, start with moving from a merchants association to a collaboration that recognizes the growing number of residents in the area.

“It’s my neighbor. I have to work it out with my neighbor,” Amra said. “They understand I can’t turn (music) down at 8:00 every night, and I understand they don’t want to hear it until 2 a.m.”

Supporting the ecosystem

To compete with inevitable up-and-coming trendy areas, it’s wise in today’s marketplace for clustered small businesses to pull together and support their own ecosystem, said Ted Zoller, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and director for the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

“It’s now not a package of individual retailers; it’s now a costumer experience,” he said. “They can meet a whole combination of needs by the neighborhood retail working together.”

Benefits of the team strategy include the pooling of resources to create solutions, cross-promotions and the draw of a critical mass searching for a destination-worthy experience.

“Retail brick-and-mortar businesses need to step up their game” as they face local and e-commerce competition, Zoller said.

Glenwood South’s challenges, said David Diaz, president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, are both general and specific. They are general in the sense that downtowns have largely been revitalized across the country, and the mixed-use clash is a by-product of that success.

“Specific to Glenwood South is the sense that the success of Fayetteville (Street) was coming at their expense,” Diaz said.

Glenwood South was Raleigh’s main entertainment district for years, Diaz and others said.

When Alex and his brother Brian opened Amra’s in 2006, the street was “booming,” Amra said. But the recession, coupled with the area’s high rent, started squeezing out many restaurants and businesses.

The Rockford closed in 2010, followed by Bogart’s American Grill, Red Room tapas lounge and Hi 5 in 2011. The Rockford eventually reopened under another owner.

“When the economy tanked, a lot of businesses went away,” Amra said.

Amra said he thinks the street suffered not because of its competition, but because business owners were complacent and assumed the street would always be busy.

Glenwood South business closings really became noticeable in 2010 and 2011, said Jim Belt, co-founder and president of the Downtown Living Advocates, a volunteer group representing residents living downtown.

Restaurants that offered daytime services struggled, and more businesses started to focus on their evening crowds, said Belt, who lives with his wife Donna in a Glenwood South condo.

The area started getting a reputation for catering to the late-night crowd that sometimes spilled into the streets as the bars closed down, Belt said.

“That’s not where we wanted to be,” Belt said. “We want to be as diverse as we started out to be.”

Meanwhile, Raleigh re-opened Fayetteville Street to vehicular traffic in 2006 and has been pouring money into renovations in the district. The Raleigh Convention Center, City Plaza, and an amphitheater followed, along with city-sponsored special events.

Despite the competition, things are clearly looking up for Glenwood South, Belt said during a recent walk on the street, pointing to three under-construction condominium projects.

“That condo. This condo. A condo over there,” Belt said. Next, he points to the under-construction multiple-story Carolina Ale House and the Hibernian Irish Pub, which owner Niall Hanley plans to reopen in January with twice the space and a second floor. The restaurant, which opened in 2000, closed last December because of a fire.

“With Glenwood Avenue, we definitely have suffered the past couple of years because there are more options for people downtown,” Hanley said. “But I am very, very confident in the sense that there is a great change happening on Glenwood in regards to the places coming up.”

Harnessing momentum

Business owners and residents said they hope the collaborative will be a tool that will improve communication between businesses and residents, support a diverse group of businesses and harness the current momentum for future success.

Future plans for the group include the tree sweaters and a sidewalk walk in which residents and business owners will scout out dark alleys, broken sidewalks and other hazards that would hinder pedestrian traffic.

Festivals and larger events will hopefully follow, Amra said.

Steve Day, a former Umstead Hotel and Spa chef who opened Plates Neighborhood Kitchen at 301 Glenwood Ave. on Nov. 1, said he expected to do a little bit of bar business, but that hasn’t really happened as dinner reservations are full late into the night.

“It’s been a bit of a surprise,” Day said, as the business is doing better than he projected. “I think it’s an indication that this area, with the addition of all the apartments, on top of the people who already live here in all the surrounding neighborhoods, are now a bit underserved, and they are looking for places to go.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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