The victim of its own success, Tempe’s popular and reanimated Mill Avenue district now suffers from local businesses’ increasing flight elsewhere and in some cases, closure.
It’s a warning to remaining merchants and city officials that without change, the trend will continue and the sight of rows of empty storefronts could well return.
This is a possibility even after the economy recovers. By losing many of its one-of-a-kind locally owned establishments as it has begun to do, Mill Avenue stands to lose its unique appeal. Those moving in are the same stores with same names — with only different ZIP codes — as in other cities.
Locally owned businesses, lacking the financial backing of a nationwide chain, have to sink or swim much quicker than the big guys. Down years — like many leisure/entertainment/tourism areas in Arizona, Mill Avenue has suffered generally from the sluggish economy — affect locally owned establishments. This effect becomes more acute as rents and property values have dramatically risen in the district.
Home-grown businesses are what give an area a “there,” a uniqueness not fostered by the same bar and eatery chain logos hanging over Tempe that hang above equally hip districts in California, Nevada or Texas. Yet the local joints suffer the quickest and the most.
Beeloe’s bar, a famous Mill Avenue fixture, gave up the ghost earlier this month. Two other revered local establishments, part of the scene since the mid-1970s, moved out of the district in recent years: The Spaghetti Co., which went to Chandler, and Changing Hands Bookstore, which opened in south Tempe before closing its 25-year-old Mill Avenue location.
The Valley is filled with people who want to spend money enjoying the area. But they are slowly being driven away by, as restaurateur Michael Monti accurately described to the Tribune’s Kirsten Searer, “the death of 1,000 cuts” — notably lack of convenient parking, poor traffic flow, an indoor smoking ban that does not account for hardship cases, the upcoming loss of Arizona Cardinals football and the annual Fiesta Bowl college football game.
The city, the Downtown Tempe Partnership and the Mill Avenue Merchants’ Association should quickly start planning to create more opportunities for local flavor. It isn’t the complete solution, but it could provide more “there,” making the parking hassles and so on a bit more tolerable. Today a growing number of people believe downtown Tempe just isn’t worth it.