Entertainment Districts expand options, spur development
Empty storefronts can be symbols of desolate and defunct neighborhoods, but they can also be seen as potential for future development and new life. Over the past year and a half, neighborhoods around Cincinnati have found a new tool to help turn those empty storefronts into future restaurants and food-serving bars with the Community Entertainment District designation.
Since November 2010, four Cincinnati neighborhoods have been designated as CEDs, which means that those neighborhoods are given one liquor license per every five acres, up to a total of 15 licenses, at the normal cost of $2,344. The CED licenses are available for food-service establishments only and cannot be transferred outside of the neighborhood. The organization applying for the designation must own property in the proposed district and obtain letters of support from community businesses, schools and churches and, once approved by the mayor's office, the applicant must then present their goals to City Council's Livability Committee for approval. So far, every applicant has been approved.
Without the CED, there are two ways to buy a liquor license. A business can go through the traditional application process and be put on the waiting list for a license that will cost $2,344, but it can take years to get to the top of the waiting list. A business can also buy a license on the open market, which can cost as much as $30,000.
Liquor licenses are distributed based on population in a city, with one license allowed per every 2,000 residents. Since 1999, the city has lost 67,095 residents, erasing 67 licenses in the city limits alone, which has pushed market rates up. The high cost of liquor licenses or a prohibitively long wait can deter entrepreneurs from opening their businesses. The CED designation, however, cuts startup costs and allows for quicker development in the districts.
Pleasant Ridge was the first neighborhood to apply for the entertainment district designation as a way to help spur renovation and development in the empty storefronts in their business district. Bryn Lewis, suggested the idea to neighbors. Originally, the CED was created for for-profit developers, and been used by businesses like The Banks, which could afford the $15,000 application fee. Lewis and the development group asked councilmember Laure Quinlivan if the application fee could be lowered. After their discussion, Quinlivan worked to pass legislation to have the application fee dropped from $15,000 to $1,500, for non-profits. It was a cost even small neighborhood associations could afford.
"We wanted to help out with this project because it will help to create vibrant and walkable neighborhoods all over Cincinnati," says Quinlivan. "So far we haven't run in to any opposition about the entertainment districts."
Pleasant Ridge was awarded five new liquor licenses Nov. 24, 2010. The neighbohood group sold one to Emanu, an existing East African restaurant that could not afford a liquor licenses. Since obtaining its license, Emanu has seen a 15 percent increase in sales. The CED also helped the neighborhood group attract new businesses to the vacant corner of on Montgomery and Ridge Roads. With local developer Gene Levental, the Pleasant Ridge Development Ccrporation obtained a $200,000 city grant to renovate six storefronts, with the end goal of attracting restaurants.
"The CED was the first step in creating momentum in our neighborhood," says Jason Chamlee, president of the PRDC. "It's an attractive asset to have, but we have to build off the assets that we already have."
The next neighborhood to apply and obtain a CED designation was Price Hill in October 2011. Price Hill received five new licenses, which lead to the opening of the Bayou Fish at 3108 Price Ave. Other CED designations have gone to Over-the-Rhine and Northside.
Both OTR and Northside were given the maximum of 15 new liquor licenses, which will go to existing and new restaurants and help businesses like Pho Lang Tang (OTR) or Take the Cake (Northside) extend their hours and lengthen their menus while generating more sales.
For Northside, which already has a flourishing business district, the 4000 block of Hamilton and Spring Grove Avenue still contains empty storefronts that could attract new restaurants.
"We are already a dining destination," says James Heller-Jackson, member of the Northside Business Association. "By adding to that, we can help spur retail stores, new residential developments and just see Northside become a more vibrant and diverse place."
Northside has had its CED since February and has not yet used any of the newly awarded liquor licenses, but Heller-Jackson says they have received may inquires and he is optimistic about the coming development for Northside.
Brad Thomas, an OTR resident and alcohol distribution attorney, worked with Kristin Hoffman to obtain the CED after being approached by several local business owners.
"Downtown serves as the hub of entertainment for the entire city and surrounding states," Thomas says. "These (liquor licenses) will be a big help to OTR."
OTR's CED goes into effect in May and spans from Central Parkway to Findlay Market with hopes of expanding the development in the Gateway Quarter north towards Findlay Market.
Since licenses are tied to specific neighborhoods, businesses can't move around the city to keep up with hot spots. In addition, the CEDs allow a new business to obtain a license without taking from another.
"People kept asking me if other neighborhoods get CEDs, will we lose opportunities to attract businesses," Chamlee says. "But that's not what it's about. If a restaurant chooses Northside over Pleasant Ridge, it's still a gain for the city as a whole."
Both Madisonville and Westwood are currently working on obtaining CED designations.