by Kellie Hwang – Oct. 20, 2011
courtesy of The Arizona Republic
[Editor’s note: Light Rail Advisors agrees that downtown Phoenix needs assistance to grow and thrive. Those are some of the reasons for creation and development of LightRailConnect.com and the LightRailConnect Magazine.]
Although about 6 million people come to downtown Phoenix each year to watch sporting events, concerts and theater productions, the streets usually feel empty after 9 p.m.
For years, the masses have not been sticking around after the buzzer sounds, the encore ends or the curtain falls.
Out-of-towners are often asking Kathy Cline, co-owner of Steve’s Greenhouse Grill, if “this” is downtown Phoenix, she said. “People go to events, buy their food and drinks there, then get in the car and go home. There’s just not that downtown vibe yet.”
But with the recent efforts of downtown business owners, entrepreneurs and developers, that is slowly changing. Through better promotion of late-night venues and a new smartphone application that tells users what’s open and what’s hip, downtown leaders are encouraging visitors to linger longer.
“Five years ago . . . I would literally watch the wave of people leaving the ballpark, head straight to the parking garages, get into their cars and leave,” said Derrick Hall, president and CEO of the Diamondbacks. “Now, the walking patterns are changing. People are going to Stand Up Live or bowling after, and that’s the way downtown should be.”
Within a comfortable walking distance of downtown’s biggest venues, about 15 late-night restaurants and bars cater to postevent crowds, staying open past 10, according to the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.
The change has come in increments. Some downtown advocates say they still see too many restaurants closing early, and though the area has several public gathering areas, none yet has the energy of a big-city streetscape.
Still, things are changing for the better, said R.J. Price, online community and publications editor for the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, a non-profit group that works to strengthen downtown development. “People aren’t as eager to quickly get back to the suburbs,” he said.
In an effort to reach out to a younger, trendier crowd, Red Development, which is behind the new shopping, dining and office-space development called CityScape, partnered with Arizona State University’s New Media Innovation Lab to create the SmartPHX smartphone app.
The online concierge helps users find restaurants, bars and venues, making it easier to grab a pre- or post-event drink. It shows hours, special events and deals.
“During MLB All-Star weekend, we had 6,000 downloads alone, and it created sort of a scavenger-hunt-type atmosphere,” said Jeff Moloznik, development manager for Red Development.
The app still is in the testing phase, but it can be downloaded from smartphx.com and will be available in the Apple iPhone and Android app markets by December.
This growing spirit of collaboration also shows in partnerships among those managing event venues and dining and drinking destinations.
In February, Phoenix Suns Charities partnered with Arrogant Butcher for one of the eatery’s pre-grand-opening events. Last October, the Suns invited 100 premium-seat holders to mingle with players and coaches at Lucky Strike Lanes, also at CityScape.
“We do want to keep people downtown, and every time a new tenant moves in, we figure out how we can help with their business,” said Lynn Agnello, the Suns’ senior vice president of marketing partnerships.
The current NBA lockout has led to some home games being canceled, and it was unclear as of Wednesday how many more games might be cut.
But although basketball fans can be a big part of the crowd on a downtown evening, the loss of games is not likely to be as big of a blow to restaurants and bars as it might seem.
Sports fans aren’t as likely as concertgoers to go out before or after events because the games are long and fans often eat and drink during them.
The Diamondbacks also run several regular promotions with businesses near Chase Field, including ticket giveaways. And the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel offers “Stay and Play” packages with room discounts for concert- and theatergoers.
“It makes perfect sense because a lot of theatergoers dine at the District,” the hotel’s restaurant, said the hotel’s director of public relations, Katie Brashear, “and we are just a few steps away from the Herberger.”
Change is slow
But change is coming slowly.
Creating a vibrant downtown can feel like a bit of a stalemate – restaurants can’t afford to stay open if no one shows, and eventgoers won’t risk staying out late if no restaurants stay open.
CityScape has experienced several setbacks recently as four restaurants or bars have pulled out of the development, three of which would have appealed to late-night crowds.
Moloznik said they will fill vacancies with similar restaurants and nightlife concepts.
Long before CityScape, downtown restaurants and bars were failing to live up to eventgoers’ expectations, closing early most days or staying closed on Sundays and Mondays.
And although art galleries, restaurants and bars have been opening up steadily in downtown for about a decade, the area still lacks a central pedestrian-friendly area. This even after the city spent millions building the Mercado in 1989 and the Arizona Center in 1990, two projects that, at the time, promised to revitalize downtown.
A recent night typified the tension downtown bars and restaurants face.
After the Arizona Diamondbacks drubbed Milwaukee in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at Chase Field on Oct. 5, groups of fans kept the night going, making a beeline for the Arrogant Butcher. But shortly after 10 p.m., lights were dim and a staffer said the restaurant was closed. A manager said the restaurant tries to keep an eye on downtown happenings to adjust closing times accordingly, but not on this particular night.
Meanwhile, upstairs, the Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery filled quickly. Most tables were occupied after about an hour.
Ray Rodriguez, 30, of Surprise, visits downtown Phoenix only for sporting events. He and his friends sat on the patio, admiring the lights of downtown.
“To find an open table after a game with this view is a luxury, and you don’t see this in other big cities,” Rodriguez said. “I thought it would be busier, though. In New York, in Puerto Rico, you can barely walk around after a game.”
Below, however, the streets are practically empty, with a few pedestrians and rickshaw drivers on the sidewalks.
Jim Ward, interim director for the Phoenix Symphony, said several fundamental issues still keep people from downtown.
Though downtown isn’t far from the suburbs, “it’s perceived that way and not as a natural destination,” he said. “This mind-set has prohibited people to really enjoy what’s down here.”
Cline, at Steve’s Greenhouse, hasn’t seen enough progress. During the Diamondbacks’ winning streak in early summer, she expected to see big postgame crowds and kept her restaurant open until 1 a.m., hoping in vain that they would appear.
“One night, we had only three dinner tables,” she said. “What hurts us is that restaurants aren’t sticking to the hours they are posting. On my days off, I try to keep it local and go to restaurants nearby, but they’ll be closed.”
But there are signs that things are improving.
Ward said the symphony conducted a survey to see what might deter people from staying downtown, and officials were surprised by the response.
“We probed for all types of barriers, whether it’s that parking is too expensive or there’s not enough restaurants or things to do,” Ward said. “We always find some issue, but our patrons gave us the highest satisfaction in responses than ever before. . . . People are starting to understand that downtown is quite wonderful.”