Kansas City businesses near new streetcars boom
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The cool guy with the black shirt unbuttoned to the navel leans on the street bike, and the girl in the really tight jeans and windblown hair leans on him.
The 34 Heritage ad is part of the window display at Michael’s Fine Clothes, where Kansas City businessmen and professionals have been buying suits and executive wear going back more than a hundred years to the old streetcar days, The Kansas City Star reported.
Welcome to the new streetcar days.
The streamlined vehicles, which launched May 6, are showing riders parts of the city some people never see. In the case of Michael’s at 1830 Main St., young men on board are finally noticing a store that’s only been around since 1905.
Keith Novorr, who runs the business started by his Russian immigrant grandfather, figures the average age of customers has dropped by 10 to 15 years since the streetcar started running. Nothing against middle-aged — or middle-aged girth, but the change in clientele called for trendier styles and more athletic cuts.
“These young guys are coming in here now,” Novorr said. “All of a sudden we went from being a destination to right in the thick of things.”
Novorr echoes the take of other business owners along the 2.2-mile route from Union Station to City Market: Yes, the construction period was difficult, but now that the streetcars are running, business is better than before.
The system tallied its millionth ride early last month — seven months ahead of schedule. That’s a lot of new eyes seeing storefronts. Some parking issues still need to be resolved, business owners say. But for now, they’re seeing new faces come through the doors of their restaurants, shops and bars.
For City Market vendors, business is up more than 20 percent.
“We’re seeing people who don’t drive, don’t have cars,” said Ahmad Alhabashi at the Al-Habashi Mart. “We see immigrants, many people who have never been down here before. They’re coming on the streetcar.”
At Silk Road Travelers, a small Asian import place at 500 Delaware St., owner Robert Eppes said he almost didn’t survive construction. The shop is off the beaten path, west of the crowded market area, but the streetcar passes in front and now business is good.
“People are coming in saying, ‘We didn’t know you were here,’ “ Eppes said.
Some people will always think the whole streetcar thing was a bad idea:
They weren’t going to ride it. All that money should have gone toward street improvements, emergency services, water and sewer upgrades and other infrastructure projects.
Even some businesses opposed the plan. They got stuck with a higher tax assessment.
But many businesses say it’s been a boon, especially as ridership is averaging 6,400 per day and is especially robust on weekends. The original projection was for 2,700 rides per day. Ridership has dropped slightly as the busy summer season ended, but it’s still been much higher than expected.
“Not everybody will agree with me, but the only way to build taxes and keep this thing going is to get people downtown,” said Lee Burgess, general manager at the Ruins Pub, 1715 Main St.
“No question, construction meant hard times. But now things are good.”
The city recently sent out a survey asking businesses along the route their thoughts and concerns about the streetcar. Those results aren’t available just yet, so The Star went out for an early peek.
The big red letters in front of Gallup Map catch the passing eye:
“Since 1875 Vintage Maps”
New signage. Owner Pat Carroll said he put it up after figuring out that the streetcar sure was bringing a lot of riders past his store at 1733 Main St.
“Is it going to be good or bad — I don’t know for sure,” he asked. “But I have to say it’s been good for me.
“There’s already been a million people going by and that’s a million views on my business, a lot of them for the first time.”
Like the woman who came in the other day and bought a framed U.S. map. “Gave $500 for it,” Carroll said. “She had never been in here before. Said she saw the place from the streetcar.”
In the City Market, Dan Spini, with apron and clipboard, stood among the produce bins at his Global Produce. Shoppers crowded past the goods, serenaded by a woodwind busker.
“You have to ask?” Spini said with a smile when asked about the streetcar.
“Customer counts are up. Monday through Friday especially. People coming down for lunch, shopping while they’re down here. Lots of new faces.”
According to Spini, most businesses in the market area are up 20 to 40 percent from last year, during construction.
“So far, it looks like it’s going the right way for us,” Spini said.
Within the City Market at the north end of the streetcar route, gross sales totaled $6.9 million from May through September, the first five months of streetcar operations. That’s up 21 percent from the same period in 2015, and doesn’t include sales for three new tenants that weren’t around in 2015. The City Market also saw gross sales up in 2015, but only by 8 percent.
“So we have seen an increase with development and the streetcar, I think,” said Deb Churchill, City Market property manager. Although City Market has been busy for years on Saturdays, Churchill said the advent of the streetcar has brought more crowds during weekday lunch hours and at the end of the workday.
Howard Hanna, the chef at The Rieger restaurant, 1924 Main St., lives in the River Market area and rides the streetcar to work every day. Sous-chef Karen Anderson rides to City Market to get fresh produce.
For Valerie Auld, sales director for the Marriott Courtyard and Marriott Residence Inn that recently opened at 15th and Baltimore streets, proximity to the streetcar is a big marketing tool.
“We find in selling this hotel every day,” she said, “what a big difference it makes to people that they are able to walk out our back door and hop on the streetcar.”
If there’s any complaint about the changes brought by the streetcar, it’s related to parking challenges in the River Market.
An audit of parking spaces in City Market’s vicinity shows numerous spaces were available before May 6, but they’re often full now, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. And during the workweek, more employees have been parking for free in the River Market and riding the streetcar downtown to work, filling spaces all day that businesses want for their customers.
The situation generated so much frustration that the city and a consultant held workshops in September. Recommendations are expected by the end of this month.
Parking in the heart of City Market and in some nearby lots and on streets is now limited to two or three hours, to help spaces turn over more frequently.
Kansas City parking services manager Bruce Campbell said plans are in the works to build a 400-space parking garage at Fifth and Main streets, although the timetable isn’t certain.
The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority has a parking lot at Third Street and Grand Boulevard with 193 spots where people can park for free all day. It’s often full on weekends but still usually has spaces during the workweek. The ATA ultimately plans to develop that lot with offices and is considering parking alternatives.
Campbell said that having paid parking in River Market, rather than free parking, was discussed in the workshops but that there have been no policy decisions to go that route.
For the time being, Campbell said, people who come downtown on weekends should know that they can park for free all day in the lot just east of the northbound Seventh and Main Street streetcar stop, and use the streetcar to get around downtown.
Some businesses lost parking spaces to the streetcar, but they’re not grumbling too much.
One of the busiest stops is on Fifth Street near the main entrance to the City Market. On a recent day, 20 to 30 people waited just outside the front door of the Opera House Coffee House & Food Emporium.
“We lost a little parking in front, but on whole this is a positive,” said manager Nathaniel Beam.
The most common request from businesses is to extend the streetcar line to the Country Club Plaza or even Brookside.
Because they’re already paying taxes for the system, they would see nothing but gains if it brings customers from farther south. Any system expansion would expand the streetcar taxes, but downtown businesses wouldn’t pay any more.
A grass-roots group is pushing a $227 million extension on Main Street to the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Still, any expansion wouldn’t open until 2023 at the earliest.
Sooner the better, Alhabashi said. He said the early success definitely calls for expanding the line to points south.
“It will be beneficial to not just City Market, but the whole of Kansas City.”