‘Plazas have taken a dive’

Kelly Petryszyn

When Marlene Broyles worked at Fashion Bug in University Plaza 20 years ago, business was booming. The businesses helped each other out.

If someone was shopping for a size that Fashion Bug didn’t carry the employees would recommend that customers check the other clothing store, 10 Below. The other businesses would return the favor and recommend Fashion Bug if it had something their store didn’t carry.

That rarely happens today because many stores have left the plaza including Giant Eagle, Jo-Ann Fabrics, a hair salon, drugstore and others. Today six spaces are empty, two of those are office spaces, property manager David Weil said.

Part of the reason for the shift from booming to bare is lack of big businesses bringing people to the plaza.

Broyles, now a part-time sales leader at Fashion Bug, said about 75 percent of the store’s business is affected by the flow of people in the plaza. She said the movie theater is currently the biggest draw; however, many of the businesses that brought foot traffic into Fashion Bug in the past have left.

“There is really no reason to come to the plaza unless you’re going to go to a movie or get your taxes done,” she said.

The decline is a low point on a business cycle that plazas encounter, community development director Gary Locke said. The economy’s sluggish effect on business makes it challenging to get new tenants.

When Giant Eagle left the University Plaza it was hard to find a new tenant to fill its space, Locke said. Businesses weren’t interested in competing with superstores such as Walmart, in which two exist within in a five-mile radius of the plaza.

Michael Cose, assistant manager of Dollar General, agreed that superstores have changed the dynamics of plazas.

“Plazas have taken a dive,” he said. “Now people can go to Walmart once and get all they need, as opposed to stopping at three different stores in a plaza.”

When business in the plaza was strong, it actually took away business from downtown, Locke said.

Downtown Kent suffered in the 1960s, shortly after the plaza opened with all spaces full.

Grocery stores used to be a big draw to the plaza. Acme was the grocery store in the 1980s and when it closed, stores left, diminishing the plaza traffic, said Robert Irr, vice president of retail leasing for J.J. Gumberg Co., owners of the plaza for almost 30 years, in an e-mail. Apples grocery store briefly moved in and then Giant Eagle replaced it. During this time, tenants filled the plaza again. The Giant Eagle was smaller than most and there was a Giant Eagle in Stow, so corporate shut it down in 2007, Irr said. Save-A-Lot has since moved in, only filling a part of the 32,000 square feet space. Save-A-Lot assistant manager Cory Nume said it took a while to get business going when the store opened and it is still not as busy as expected. He said it is one of the slower Save-A-Lot locations.

Weil is working on filling the empty spaces. The company he works for, Spiegel Properties, wants a national tenant.

“Our real goal is to get a big tenant so people will go there,” he said.

Soon the plaza will have to compete with a more bustling downtown.

Kent is developing a downtown revitalization project that will revamp downtown by adding a hotel, conference center, multi-purpose transit facility and more. City officials are optimistic that this will help the plaza.

Councilman Wayne Wilson said he predicts this development will have a positive effect on the plaza. A busier downtown could draw people to the outskirts of downtown, including University Plaza, which is located in Wilson’s Ward 3. Also, if many businesses want to move into downtown and there is not enough room, the city will recommend available spaces at the plaza.

The plaza is not forgotten. Wilson said the city’s attention is currently focused on downtown, but after that project is developed the city will shift more focus to outlaying areas like the plaza.

Contact public affairs reporter Kelly Petryszyn at [email protected].