Bechtle Avenue booms as Upper Valley struggles

Once the heart of a thriving corridor in Clark County, Upper Valley Pike has suffered three major blows in the past two months.

Kmart shut its doors at 1476 Upper Valley Pike in December. Just weeks later, J.C. Penney and Macy’s announced on back-to-back days that they will close their stores at the Upper Valley Mall this spring. Those three closings will cost the area about 240 jobs and leave vacant thousands of square feet of retail space.

But just about two miles away on Bechtle Avenue, Clark County’s new retail hotspot is crowded with busy restaurants and big box stores as the area has begun to turn the corner from the recent recession. An updated proposal is in the works that could add more stores and restaurants there.

Retail’s shift from Upper Valley to Bechtle Avenue is the result of long-ago business decisions, changing consumer habits and a herd mentality among retailers as they scrap and claw for their share of the local market, economic development experts said.

“Over the course of time, a lot of changes in the way people shop, competition and other things have changed the game,” said Steve Speranza, president of Tolson Enterprises, a Toledo-based commercial and retail developer.

Local economic development leaders continue to support and market the Upper Valley Mall and surrounding corridor, said Horton Hobbs, vice president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce

“We’re a resilient community that has had setbacks in the past and will in the future,” Hobbs said. “It’s how you respond to those that sets your community forward and we’re at a transformative time in our history. You don’t want to see what was once your largest sales tax generator suffer that kind of de-investment. But you have to look at it as an opportunity to re-imagine that area as something different and I think we’ll do that.”

Shifts in retail

Traffic counts conducted by the Clark County-Springfield Transportation Coordinating Committee are one indication of how shoppers have shifted from Upper Valley Pike. A count there near Ohio 41 showed more than 18,300 vehicles passed through in a day in 1994. But a traffic counts conducted in the same area in 2011 showed that number had fallen to about 10,300.

Over at Bechtle Avenue, city commissioners will likely vote in March on a proposal that call for two new anchor stores, as well six standalone stores or restaurants and a possible hotel.

“It’s been a gradual magnet pull of traffic to Bechtle,” Clark County Commissioner John Detrick said. “You’ve just seen gradual growth there. Everything from Five Guys to Walmart have all come in the last seven to eight years. People like to be where there’s activity.”

Local economic developers have tried to market both areas to retailers for years. An effort to tie the districts together and re-brand it under the name 41 Crossing began in 2012 and is still in the works, although Hobbs said other projects have been more of a priority as the city and chamber have worked to attract higher-paying jobs in the wake of the recession.

Other communities that have struggled economically often don’t have multiple shopping areas, Hobbs said.

“For some communities with all these struggles, that’s all the retail they have,” Hobbs said. “For us things are moving around in our community but we still have the retail demand.”

The Upper Valley Mall and other stores like nearby Dunham’s Sports not only have to compete with Bechtle Avenue, but numerous other area shopping centers like the the Fairfield Commons Mall in Beavercreek or Dayton Mall.

Decades ago, the Upper Valley Mall was a big deal, said Shelley Gibson, who grew up here but recently moved back to Clark County after spending several years in Colorado. Gibson spent part of a recent afternoon shopping at Hobby Lobby on Upper Valley Pike but said she often shops about 20 minutes away at Fairfield Commons.

The Beavercreek mall is closer to her work, but Gibson said both Bechtle and Fairfield Commons also offer more restaurants and a greater variety of stores than Upper Valley. Losing both J.C. Penney and Macy’s is a further blow to the area, she said.

“Now that Macy’s and J.C. Penney left the mall, I have a fear it’s just going to turn into an undesirable place,” Gibson said.

Losing retailers creates a vicious cycle, said Bob Weaver, who was shopping recently for fishing gear at Dunham’s at Upper Valley Pike. Retailers won’t go to an area where people aren’t shopping, he said, but residents won’t go unless there are already stores and restaurants that appeal to them.

“If you want convenience you should shop in your neighborhood,” Weaver said. “But they have to have somewhere to shop, too.”

Herd mentality

Bechtle Avenue has a handful of vacant storefronts, but most of the stretch is crowded with national and regional chains, including Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, as well as restaurants like Chipotle and Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

It’s hard to tell exactly why one portion of a city attracts business while another struggles, said Serdar Durmusoglu, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Dayton. But shopping center and retail managers need to constantly reinvest and attract new businesses to keep shoppers interested.

“The mix of stores in a certain area has to be vibrant,” he said. “If you have five really nice retailers in a certain part of town, you cannot consider that to be a shoe-in for decades to come. Those days are gone.”

Retailers also take a close look at population, traffic and the ages and incomes of customers when deciding where to locate, Durmusoglu said. Typically retail shifts from places like Upper Valley as the result of numerous decisions by local shopping center owners over a span of years or even decades.

“Every decision you make has long consequences,” he said. “Sometimes you have to think very carefully.”

Springfield’s situation is playing out in hundreds of other cities across the U.S., said Speranza, of Tolson Enterprises. The company manages Bechtle Square and the Springfield Town Center, which includes restaurants like Panera Bread and Chipotle.

Big Box stores like Target and Wal-Mart years ago decided to build their own locations rather than become mall anchors, Speranza said, and eventually became major traffic generators. Smaller retailers like restaurants and banks soon followed and began setting up near the large chains, pulling shoppers away from malls.

“Bechtle’s a perfect example,” Speranza said. “Once you get that critical mass, the rest of the restaurants and retailers just follow the herd.”

Other sections of Springfield like East Main Street have also lost business over the years but have seen some reinvestment return, said Tom Franzen, assistant city manager and economic development director.

“Upper Valley’s kind of gone through the same thing but the reinvestment just hasn’t occurred,” Franzen said. “Why? I don’t know other than retailers are not real brave folks. They don’t want to be the trendsetters, they don’t want to be the one that builds and tries to attract other stuff around it. It’s almost the opposite. They want to go where the action is or where they perceive the action to be.”

Future of Upper Valley

The Upper Valley Mall was the driver of shopping in Springfield for decades but has faced numerous challenges in recent years. Detrick and other elected officials have complained that Simon Management Associates, the mall’s former owners, neglected the site and rarely made needed investments.

Last spring, the company defaulted on a $47 million loan and the mall went into receivership. Urban Retail, based in Chicago, was picked to manage the site in the meantime and has since pledged to find tenants and invest to bring new traffic to the mall.

Several local business owners said they continue to be successful operating on the corridor despite those challenges.

Sheila Snider has owned Wet Your Whiskers, a pet grooming business, for more than a decade. The store recently moved to a new location at 400 Upper Valley Pike from a nearby shopping center.

Snider has considered moving to Bechtle Avenue in the past but said her business has seen steady growth, and noted the rent is more affordable. She picked Upper Valley a decade ago because of its easy access to local highways and steady traffic. She also noted her business doesn’t face much competition from online shopping, which she argued has hurt other stores in the area.

Snider said she remembers discussions years ago in which local officials considered more development on Upper Valley, but there was opposition from some local home owners. Once that talk died away, businesses began developing Bechtle Avenue.

Snider said she’s glad she remained.

“I personally wonder if I would have moved to Bechtle, with the way the traffic is, some people just aren’t going to fight it,” Snider said.

Just past the mall, Dan Hafle operates the Hafle Winery at 2369 Upper Valley Pike. The site previously operated as a winery for about 20 years but closed in 1994. Hafle opened the site again a year ago as a wine bar and said the business has fared well.

Losing sites like Kmart and J.C. Penney are heart-breaking for the area, he said.

“It’s not going to devastate my business because we’re going to do just fine,” Hafle said. “Other people are telling me they think Bechtle is just too crowded and so as an alternative, they’ll come here regardless of what goes on at the mall.”

It’s tougher to attract top tenants to Upper Valley Pike now than it would have been just a few years ago, Speranza said, but not impossible.

“It can be done,” he said. “There’s just not a lot of new big boxes that are looking for space like there was back in the 1990s and 2000s. But stranger things have happened. Where there’s real estate there’s always someone that’s creative. Bechtle is running out of land.”

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