The development director admitted city officials initially hoped to attract four or five temporary vendors downtown. That number exploded to more than two dozen that agreed to locate downtown during the holidays in exchange for free or reduced rent. Carrion explained he continues to get four or five phone calls each day about the program.
“We’re now facing the dilemma of finding enough space for them, which is really a great problem to have,” he said. “Every shop is doing something special for the holidays.”
The program really drew interest after Light Up Lorain, a holiday-themed event that brought hundreds of families downtown. City officials are following that up with free carriage rides downtown every Friday evening in December for families and couples.
“The idea is to not only incentivize and get the property owners involved, but also to bring in new vendors and new merchants back into our retail district,” Carrion said. “We looked at other models across the nation. One that caught our eye is a model being used in Pontiac, Michigan. It’s been highly successful and we just wanted to follow the same approach and make it happen here in Lorain.”
But the effort is more than just about the holiday season. City officials are working with a number of groups, including the Lorain Arts Council, to create a series of events to continue to draw the public downtown and help the vendors and businesses who set up.
“Our long-term plan is for hopefully these pop-up businesses to be here permanently, at least most of them. It’s continued to attract other ones to make their residences here permanently in our business district downtown,” he said.
Arts will be a major future factor in the redevelopment of downtown. In addition to the pop-up shops, city development officials are working with Lorain arts groups to create an arts district downtown to create a mixed-use atmosphere and create a “critical mass”.
“Really, the arts play an integral part of that development and they provide a tremendous economic boost to that area,” Carrion said. “Lorain City Council recently passed ‘live-work’ legislation that really makes this area appealing to artists and the arts community, where they can actually live and work in the same place where they do business.”
Lorain officials are focusing first on what they call a “critical node” of downtown—along Sixth and Seventh Sts., where the historic Palace Theater, a new coffeehouse, and a popular restaurant called Mrs. Claus’s Kitchen are located. A series of pop-up shops are now located alongside those, along with a permanent merchant offering specialty candies.
Since the effort started with the restaurant in 2009, the downtown area has seen more than 10,000 visitors, mostly on weekends. But Lorain officials this year added family-friendly holiday activities, such as arts and crafts, photos with Santa, and holiday-themed storytelling times involving works such as The Polar Express and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
“What we’re doing is working to develop other areas of the downtown corridor, but what we needed to do was, based on our history, create legislation that allows the arts community to be interested and engaged in Lorain,” Carrion said. “Our lighting in the downtown district has not been the best—and we needed to improve that.”
A major streetlight improvement project just went out to bid, so that work will begin with the New Year. Once a couple of blocks are redeveloped, the idea is to expand the effort outward along Broadway several more blocks to the Black River and Lake Erie waterfronts. The development director pointed to similar efforts in Vermilion, Huron, and Cleveland where northern Ohio cities are trying to take advantage of their waterfront.
“We’re really taking the necessary steps to improve the image of our business district downtown and really make it more enticing to the groups that we’re catering to,” he said.
“It really is the most important asset we have. Our future is really going to revolve around our waterfront.”
But as the economy continues to recover in fits and starts, the program is quickly becoming the long-term catalyst Lorain officials had hoped. Several shops have inquired about permanent leases downtown Lorain as a direct result of the new initiative. The development director stated at least five businesses already had signed long-term leases.
“The plan is never complete. There are lots of moving parts. But we wanted to get it off the ground, because time is of the essence to us,” Carrion explained.
Anyone with questions about the program or a schedule of events can call the Lorain Community Development Dept. at 440.204.2020.
On the Internet: http://www.cityoflorain.org/announcements?view=1398