I know, you’ve already heard me rant about the development potential of Kent’s riverfront but I can’t help it. Every time I drive by I see neighborhood retail and restaurants. Even when I went back to Rochester NY to visit my family over Thanksgiving I kept thinking about our riverfront — part of that was because there was an article about Rochester’s riverfront effort to convert the “High Falls” area into an entertainment district. It’s a great example of the “real world” of development, where money is spent and things don’t always work out as planned, but you have to keep trying and sometimes the best results are the least expected.
Like so many cities, it was the river that brought commerce and powered the first mills in Rochester. And the High Falls area was prime real estate for the mills that prospered there for years. Of course, today downtowns and mills have changed, and Rochester recognized the need to transform the old mill property into new viable economic ventures — hoping that entertainment and dining was the ticket.
Over 16 years the City of Rochester invested $30 million into High Falls. The money has indeed transformed the area, which in 1990 was mainly blighted property and abandoned warehouses. But it’s also fair to say that the original $30 million vision hasn’t lived up to expectations.
The vision was to turn High Falls into renovated warehouses with bustling nightlife, billiards, dance clubs, bowling alleys and restaurants. Jillians came in first and after 8 years it sold out to Saddle Ridge Entertainment that tried to make a go at country music with line dancing, cowboy-hatted gals dancing on the bar, and a mechanical bull. Top 40 music was offered in The Yucatan Liquor Stand. The Cheyenne Super Club served BBQ, steaks, and over-stuffed sandwiches with live local and national entertainment. The Palm Bar had an upscale atmosphere and high-end tapas menu. And King Pinz featured a retro bowling alley, salvaged from Jillian’s. These multi-themed restaurants were under one roof, filling up a 40,000 square foot renovated building.
Saddle Ridge failed too.
The Cordish Company out of Baltimore was given $2.5 million from the city to manage High Falls Live, a collection and bars near Saddle Ridge. The local press hasn’t felt that High Falls Live has lived up to its billing.
High Falls Live is Modeled after Power Point Live in Baltimore MD
A partnership with the City of Baltimore, MD, Power Plant Live! is the redevelopment of two vacated city square blocks into a vibrant $35 million entertainment district coupled with loft offices. The project is located two blocks from Baltimore’s world famous Inner Harbor. Power Plant Live! is a collection of fifteen different entertainment venues including a range of restaurants, bars, comedy, dance clubs, dueling pianos and is anchored by a 1,600 occupancy state-of-the-art live music venue. Opened in phases during 2001 and 2002, Power Plant Live! has become the region’s dominant entertainment district attracting millions of visitors.
In between the visible failures, small success stories were being written. The High Falls Film Festival has become a popular attraction and the laser light show on the falls is a family favorite event, as is the interpretive hands-on museum.
The City is re-working their development formula to focus more on mixed use development featuring smaller restaurants, retail shops, and local galleries. This shift is in recognition that the district has been successful in revamping many of the historic brick buildings and converting them into retail, office and living spaces.
Over the years, area retailers say they have become less dependent on pedestrian traffic. “Most of our customers are from the ad agencies and law firms,” said Shannon Orlando, manager of Spin Caffe at 229 Mill St. The coffee shop has been holding its own since opening four years ago, but “we need more residential,” Orlando said. Employees at The Creator’s Hands at 81 Brown’s Race don’t think the closing of Saddle Ridge will affect business because the arts and crafts gift shop tends to be a destination place. “We have a following,” said employee Carolyn Argust. “We get a lot of tourists,” employee Margaret Lester added.
Rochester has worked hard and they’ve backed up their aspirations with real dollars. Yet despite their best laid plans, parts of the vision has floundered — which in the development world is probably more common than not. But they don’t stop reinvesting; instead they learn, adapt and continue to refocus on what is working.
Rochester is closer to the size of Cleveland than it is Kent, but their experience certainly offers lessons that we can take as we start working — and reworking — our Kent riverfront.
And as Rochester learned the hard way, perfect plans are overrated.