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Downtown York set for many 2016 additions
Several groups with a vested interest in improving downtown York City have been working together as the area sees more business growth in 2016 than any year in recent memory.
Speaking at a recent Downtown Update meeting, Natalie Williams, Downtown Inc's small business liaison, outlined seven restaurants or breweries that had already opened or expanded downtown this year and nine more that are planning to open or expand by this fall.
Williams said it's the most business activity she's seen downtown in her time with the organization charged with enhancing and encouraging investment in the city's central business district.
"It's going to be a busy few months for ribbon cuttings," she said.
Joint effort: Downtown Inc isn't the sole organization responsible for the growth movement, Williams added.
Royal Square Development and Construction (now RSDC), which operates out of a shared workspace at 110 S. Queen St., owns four large, previously vacant (or rarely used) buildings along West Market Street that the group is working to renovate and reopen as a mix of retail and apartment spaces.
"York is at the tipping point (for development)," RSDC's President Josh Hankey said shortly after his company was awarded a large tax credit allocation for the renovations. "And this (project) is the push it needs."
One of those buildings is the former Weinbrom Jewelers, which has been vacant at the intersection of West Market and South Beaver streets since 2007.
Dylan Bauer, RSDC's director of real estate development and property management, said part of the plan for that space included a corner restaurant, and when he heard about interest from an established restaurateur, multiple parties jumped into action.
A group of established downtown leaders that included Bauer, Williams and Rock Commercial's Ben Chiaro formed a business recruitment committee to meet with the potential tenant.
"Within 24 hours, we had gathered 17 people to attend this business meeting," Williams said. "We talked about what's happening, why they should make a commitment, and made a great impression."
It was the first time the groups had used the strategy to recruit a new business, but Williams said they will keep it in their wheelhouse.
Bauer can't reveal details about the new restaurant until a final lease is signed, but he said the meeting "definitely paid off."
Downtown renaissance: One established restaurateur who is already known to be opening a new eatery in downtown York is Calogero Elia, current owner of Cafe Fresco Paxton in Harrisburg.
Elia is now working on Iron Horse York, an American bistro, in the renovated One Marketway West building at the intersection of West Market Street and North George Street with an expected opening in mid-July or August.
Elia said he had been approached by Downtown Inc about opening a restaurant in the area about six years ago, but he wasn't ready at the time.
When a Bennett Williams agent approached him in 2014 about the One Marketway West building, Elia liked the opportunity.
"I just really liked the space and location," he said. "“Downtown York’s current renaissance made it a nice fit for both (me and the community).”
The renaissance isn't just about additional restaurants, Bauer said.
One of Royal Square's properties along West Market Street has already been filled by Timeline Arcade, a hot yoga studio is slated to open near Cherry Lane, and a technology initiative planning to set up its home base in WeCo district was recently recognized by the White House.
"I think it's synergy," Bauer said. "It's not one thing moving it forward. Density brings density."
Ahead of schedule: Bauer said that as an entrenched member of the movement, he's felt the "genuine momentum," but he admits that he's a little surprised at how quickly everything is coming together.
Williams said, aside from a couple projects that had been in the works for a few years, most of the business growth has come together within the past six months.
In its role as a business improvement district, Downtown Inc is required to provide a special business assessment every five years. Last July, it sent its 2016-20 plan, Vision 2020, to property owners in the district, and they're already well ahead of schedule.
"It's a testament to our staff and partnerships that we're already crossing things off that list," said Megan Feeser, Downtown Inc's marketing director.
Feeser added that it's important to understand the plan is a "living document" that will evolve along with the city throughout its timespan.
Demand increasing: For example, Feeser said housing wasn't a direct focus when the plan was written, but it has become a major emphasis in recent months.
High-end apartments located downtown are in "extremely high demand," Bauer said, and the market is responding.
Apartments in One Marketway West and the renovated Keystone Colorworks building, at 175 W. Gay Ave., are almost fully leased as RSDC begins work on 34 new apartments within its West Market Street properties and another developer recently announced plans to renovate a seven-story building on Madison Avenue to add 46 apartments.
"The cause is so deep," Bauer said of the increase in desire for downtown apartments. "Millennials are starting to have more expendable income, they want to wait to get married and have kids, and they want to live downtown."
A former Rock Commercial adviser, Bauer remembers a time when finding businesses to locate downtown was a struggle.
"Some of those first movers, like York City Pretzel and Holy Hound, they took a leap of faith," he said. "It was risky at the time."
Feeser said there's now a shortage of desirable retail spaces available downtown, and the community leaders are in a position to be picky about who they allow to open up shop.
"A few years ago, a retailer would've had their pick of vacant properties," Feeser said. "Now it requires a little more creativity on our part to find a space that works for them."
Untapped audience: Feeser added that Downtown Inc is constantly interacting with other interest groups to determine what the area's needs are when considering a new business proposal.
One of those groups always "on top of mind" is York College students, who Feeser said are still a relatively untapped audience for downtown growth.
Dominic DelliCarpini, dean of York College's Center for Community Engagement, has been active in building that bond, Feeser said, and the college recently purchased the Marketview Arts building and former Lafayette Club, both located downtown.
An ongoing $1 million improvement project on the York County Heritage Rail Trail is also aimed at bringing more students downtown. The improvements to the connector between York College and downtown York include widening the trail, better stormwater management and the addition of LED lights.
"It's meant to be a safe, easy walk or bike ride for students to go downtown and back," Feeser said. "The pieces are there for a great relationship."