The Corridor Project
Sunday:The value and difficultly of tracking commercial retail businesses.
One area stands out in Mahoning County as king of commercial retail businesses.
About 10,000 businesses call Boardman Township home, drawing more than 100,000 people to township limits during the day to eat, shop, work and play. At least 50 percent of the county sales tax – which totaled more than $27 million in 2010 – comes from Boardman’s commercial corridor.
The size of the corridor makes documenting retail trends difficult, and no government or business agency has undertaken the task.
To check the vitality of the business community amid the recent economic turbulence, The Vindicator went door-to-door to survey two parts of the commercial corridor: U.S. Route 224 and Market Street.
The results provide a revealing snapshot:
• On 224, from the Interstate 680 on ramp in the east to state Route 11 in the west, nearly 17 percent of storefronts were vacant.
• On Market Street, from Midlothian Boulevard to the north and Western Reserve Road to the south, that figure was 20 percent, or one in five storefronts.
“The application of what can be taken from this data is unlimited,” said township Administrator Jason Loree.
“Boardman’s retail footprint is very important to the Mahoning Valley,” said Walter Good, vice president of Economic Development at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber.
“It serves a significant portion of our populations. Boardman serves the southern part and Niles is the other major retail center serving the north.”
Good said it is important to remember that not only does Boardman retail serve the metropolitan Youngstown area, it also serves people from Western Pennsylvania.
He noted both Boardman and Niles “have remained the major players in the local retail economy.”
“Their positions have remained consistent, and I don’t think one has increased or diminished over the other,” he said.
Although Boardman retail is considered important to the area economy, the Chamber does not track retail vacancy.
“Tracking retail vacancy accurately is a very time-consuming process because the available square footage amounts vary widely, from hundreds to thousands of square feet,” Good said.
He added that retail space turns over very frequently, so vacancy numbers would constantly be in flux.
“So as we allocate and prioritize our efforts, we have determined that maintaining this sort of information is not the most fruitful use of our resources,” he said.
Good said that 17 ribbon cuttings for new businesses took place in Boardman Township in 2010. Those businesses are not exclusively retail.
This was the first time the Chamber tracked the ribbon cuttings by municipality, so it does not have figures for 2008 and 2009, Good explained.
Tony Paglia, the Chamber’s vice president of Government Affairs, issued 13 press releases announcing ribbon cuttings for new businesses in Boardman in 2009 and 2010.
“Not all of the businesses or non-profits that have ribbon-cuttings ask us to do a press release. It’s a service we offer,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Of those 13 businesses, six were located on Market Street or Route 224.
The township’s role
Although the Chamber minimizes the usefulness of compiling data on retail business, Loree said that type of information is very valuable. The township, however, lacks the resources to collect it.
Loree said this kind of research is a project an economic development coordinator would undertake, but the township cannot afford to hire one.
“To be able to try and collect data on who’s here, how many vacancies we have year to year to year, helps us put together a plan,” he said. “It tells us if we need to be focusing the township’s efforts on zoning or rehabilitating certain areas of the township.”
The closest the township comes to tracking commercial retail space is through its zoning department.
“The incoming businesses, if they’re renting, will have an application for a sign permit and that serves as an occupancy notice. Businesses do not have to notify us if the lease is up, and the vast majority don’t,” said Zoning Inspector Anna Mamone.
She said the reasons a new business would go to the township are for a sign permit, change in occupancy or a conditional use permit.
“There isn’t a department in the township that could track that right now,” she said.
Both Loree and Mamone said it is in the best interest of the township to have business occupying former vacancies, but that sometimes owners of a building don’t have an incentive for occupancy.
Mamone cited the property on the corner of Route 224 and South Avenue as an example. It is the location of the former Park Classic Diner and before that, Pizza Hut.
“At one point, the Pizza Hut lease there was a 20-year lease. It does remain vacant, but the company is still under lease and continues payments under the conditions of the lease,” she said, adding she is unsure if Eat ‘n Park, the diner’s owner, had a similar lease agreement.
Historic and ‘stable’
Downtown Youngstown was once the hub for retail, Loree said.
“As business and industry left ... the sprawl happened,” he said, describing the shift of retail to Boardman and Austintown
In 1950, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. opened Boardman Plaza, one of the first strip malls in the country. Twenty years later, the retail mogul’s company opened the Southern Park Mall, transforming the way retail was organized. The mall now is owned by Simon Property Group.
“What we saw was a shift in retail to suburban environments. Boardman had a lot of land, 224 had a lot of open space that was readily developable and still in close proximity to the city,” Good said.
Good added that once a retailer has success in an area, other businesses look to that as a positive sign.
“You have retailers who look at other retailers and look at the presence of who’s in a particular market. They do a market study, and also sometimes think, ‘if so-and-so is there, it must be good.’ That drives retail growth,” Good said.
James Grantz, a broker associate at local real estate firm Edward J. Lewis Inc., said that the recession hasn’t affected Boardman’s retail as severely as other parts of the country.
“We are more stable. We never experienced the bubble. We never had a really high increase in rental rates and so forth,” he said. “We never experienced the real high high and the real low low.”
Because The Vindicator was the first to compile this data, there is no comparison point and it is difficult to extrapolate what role the recession has or has not played for retail in Boardman Township, Loree said.
County sales tax figures show a dip during 2009 to about $26 million, down from more than $28 million in 2008. Last year’s county sales tax figures show a slight increase, with about $27 million collected.
Loree, a lifelong township resident, said from his perspective during his four years as administrator, retail businesses have remained “stable.”
“If I had to say there’s been a shift, it would be from people want to be on Market Street to people wanting to be on 224,” he said.
— Grace Wyler contributed to this report.