The Norman Transcript

November 10, 2006

Down on Main Street

Transcript Staff Writer

Momentum is an elusive thing. Creating upward momentum is tough and reversing downward momentum even tougher.

But one thing that's undeniable -- Norman's resurgent, historic downtown Main Street has that elusive positive momentum after a bumpy road to a renaissance that started more than a decade ago. A plethora of new businesses are opening almost weekly in an area where only a few years ago they were fleeing.

Now downtown is brimming with art galleries, old and new restaurants and other retail establishments.

The newly minted Fancy That Caf?, Bakery and Takery at 215 E. Main St. recently opened on a bustling block that also boasts Winan's Fine Chocolates and Coffee, Bison Witches Bar and Deli and The Diner just west at 207, 211 and 213 E. Main St. respectively.

Fancy That owner Robin Allen and her husband Don wanted to own their own building. And since moving the business about two weeks ago, the additional visibility and foot traffic of downtown has translated into increasing business for the restaurant that specializes in comfort food and sumptuous baked items.

"I love what's going on downtown," Allen said. "Downtown looks great. Our business has blossomed."

The Allens moved Fancy That downtown on the urging of their friends Newt and Gina Mitchell of Mitchell's Jewelry at 218 E. Main St.

The 145-seat Italian restaurant Benvenuti's opened March 15 in the charming old Interurban building at 106 W. Main St.

"Business has been really, really good," said co-owner Mohammed "Hoss" Hossain. "It is such a wonderful building. We just fell in love with it and recognized the need for an independent restaurant instead of a chain. We're glad we did it in this location."

Benvenuti's has especially become a favorite of crowds coming to shows at the historic Sooner Theatre just east across the railroad tracks.

"We get a lot of reservations," Hossain said of those evenings.

And those looking for a fine cheese or other gastronomic pleasure can visit Suzy Thompson and Steve Reynolds who opened Forward Foods in late September at 123 E. Main St. The couple's new store stocks more than 200 exotic cheeses from all over the globe, heirloom beans, bulk pastas and many organic foods and flowers.

The Mitchells endured the extensive $3 million downtown renovation and streetscaping project in 2003 and 2004, which took down some other businesses that Newt Mitchell said he believes were probably not capitalized well enough to sustain the challenges of the construction.

But with the former pain now comes gain.

Mitchell's Jewelry, established in 1981, survived the 20-month renovation in style. Now they're in the block Newt Mitchell calls "one of the most vibrant areas of downtown."

"Once it got done, (business) really picked up," he said. "It's a good place to be right now ... and the aesthetics are nice."

Would he go through downtown renovation again, knowing then what he knows now -- how long it took?

"Most definitely," Newt said, who was born and raised on Main Street, growing up at 725 W. Main St.

Danny McIntyre of Danny's TV and Appliances at 110 E. Main St. once was very vocal about how tough it was on downtown businesses to go through the renovation.

Now his wife Sheila doesn't want to talk about the bad old days of 2003-04.

"We only want to say positive things about it," she said.

Another new business in the 200 block is Harmony Hardware at 224 E. Main St., which recently moved from their East Comanche location across Porter Avenue.

"We get a lot more walk-in traffic," said Jennifer Peters, co-owner with Brent Swift.

That's echoed by Sherri Rogers, executive director of the Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau, which moved into 223 E. Main St. in February.

"It was so important for us to get on Main Street," Rogers said. "It's exciting to be down here. ... People are finding a reason to come downtown. We're like information central."

And there are four businesses working hard to get open in the 300 block of East Main Street by Norman's Art Walk, planned Dec. 1-3 in downtown.

Amber Clour of Dreamer Concept Studio and Foundation is planning her grand opening at 324 E. Main St. Dec. 1 for the Art Walk's first night with live music from singer-songwriter Camille Harp and body painting.

Other new businesses planned to open in the 300 block in the next few weeks include Byzantine Bindery, the Ring of Fire glass blowing studio and an African-American hair styling salon.

Several art galleries persevered through the streetscaping program. With those and new art venues, downtown has evolved into the city's art district.

Main Site, Tribes Gallery and the nearby Crucible Foundry are among those that endured the traffic snarls.

And others have followed, including several establishments doubling as galleries, including Winan's, the Norman Arts Council at 220 E. Main St., Kenny Hall's Hall of Tattoo's at 328 E. Main St.

"It's very exciting. You can just taste it," said Mike Pullin, president of the Norman Downtowners Association and vice president of First Fidelity Bank on the corner of East Main and Peters Street.

Flashback a decade

"We were on a slippery slope," said Jonathan Leavey, one of the original members of the Heart of Norman, Inc. committee. "Downtown was getting dilapidated ... on its way to becoming a ghost town. ... We were at a tipping point."

Several citizens joined together in September 1995 to start exploring ways to reverse the disinvestment, neglect and crumbling infrastructure of downtown -- and that core group provided the spark that led to the downtown revitalization now growing exponentially week-to-week and month-to-month.

The Downtown Norman Project Steering Committee was formed with several dozen citizens, including Ron Murray, Jimmie Adair, Jim Adair, Chuck Thompson, Gary Clinton, Gene McKown and many others. Some would come and some would go over the years, but a determined core group plugged it through.

"There are all these little bits and pieces of the puzzle," Leavey said.

A detailed comprehensive study for downtown was contracted in September 1997. The cost was $90,000, paid for with $65,000 of city funds and $25,000 by downtown business owners. Pflum, Klausmeir and Gehran Consultants, Inc. was chosen to do study.

"(Ron Murray) was very impassioned about getting the money raised and the project started," said Anna-Mary Suggs, executive director of the Norman Chamber of Commerce, about Murray's fundraising for the initial study. Suggs acted as project manager, with the city contracting with the Chamber.

The first draft of the plan was received in September 1998, with the final plan delivered September 1999.

The plan envisioned the addition of about 135,500 square feet of new or redeveloped retail and related space, 107,700 square feet of new professional and personal service offices, potentially 248 new residential dwelling units and 795 new parking spaces, including what is becoming downtown's new parking lot in the 200 block of Gray Street.

Another year later, city council was considering a proposal for Main Street enhancements between University Boulevard and Porter Avenue.

Three projects would be done -- improving Main Street as a roadway, enhancing it through landscaping and historically styled lighting and reconfiguring and replacing infrastructure including water lines and a fire suppression line, which enabled residential lofts over businesses.

"It was a partnership and the partnership that worked out well," Suggs said.

At the heart of the revitalization was a complex downtown streetscape project that started out being projected to take 8 months and eventually taking closer to 20 months.

Public and private funding was pieced together, including Oklahoma Department of Transportation enhancement grants, funds from the Transportation Equity Act or TEA 21 funds, the city's capital and water funds and funds from downtown merchants.

"It was kind of like a chicken and egg deal," said Patrick Copeland, city development services manager, one of several city staff members who provided their expertise throughout the process. "It was important that property owners share the cost."

An about $2.9 million contract was awarded to M.L.Young Construction along with a $213,000 contract to FHC-Tetra Tech for construction management and inspection services.

Construction finally started in early April 2003, with a completion deadline of Nov. 17, 2003.

There were a myriad of construction delays blamed on a variety of causes, including finding an old, active water main 4 feet underneath Main Street that had to be relocated 7 feet down and delays blamed on delivery of materials.

"The hardest part of the job is what you don't know about," said Mike Coleman of M.L. Young early in the project. "You never know what you might find."

Promised completion dates came and went. When all was said and done, the project came in 238 days after promised.

And there was a $2,000 per day fine to the contractor for each day the Main Street Downtown Improvement Project went past its Nov. 17 deadline.

Almost two years have gone by after the downtown project's completion.

And almost like giving birth, memory of the pain is fading for those businesses that survived and it's rewarding to everyone who contributed their time and resources to bringing historic downtown back.

"I think it's really been effective, because you can really see the changes," Suggs said. "I think it's finally building a critical mass."

Leavey said there are many heroes that came and went over the decade. And it's hard to make sure all are named.

But here's a list of a few more of them: Former mayor Ron Henderson, Chuck Thompson, Ed Copelin, Bob Goins, Charles Hollingsworth, Lois Lawler, Kevin Pipes, Cindy Rosenthal, Charlie Rayl, Michelle Linnemann, Phyllis Murray, Bill Nations, Don Wood, Harold Heiple, Don Symcox, Jeremy Howard and Richard Massie.

"It's kind of like the credits that roll at the end of the movie," Leavey said, noting there are lots more.

Carol Cole 366-3538