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Downtown Tucson rocks new businesses — and welcomes the boom

fox theatreFrom entertainment at the Fox Tucson Theatre to a cornucopia of new restaurants, to entrepreneurial innovations, downtown Tucson has been transformed — and more changes are on the way. “It’s been very gratifying and good for the Fox to offer significant programming downtown,” says Craig Sumberg, executive director of the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation. “The rest of downtown is now ready for prime time.” The Fox offers around 150 events annually and in the next two years Sumberg foresees that rising to at least 175. “I think the Fox deserves some credit,” he says, “as well as Rio Nuevo, for developing the impetus for private investors to believe that it’s worth coming downtown.” The economic impact of recent growth has been $1.8 million to the Fox itself, says Sumberg, “which brings in $1.5 million to the rest of downtown.”

The revitalization goes beyond dollars. “Downtown is booming,” says Caitlin Jensen, a Tucson native and director of the Downtown Tucson Partnership. The nonprofit has compiled data on 150 new businesses established over the last 60 months, since the beginning of the recession, Jensen told the AJP. “We’re just getting started. There have been lots of reiterations of downtown Tucson that haven’t stuck. This boom really speaks to the soul of Tucson. It’s authentic revitalization. It’s very grassroots. There’s passion about this, it’s not just happening to make a buck.”

In fact, she says, “Tucson is leading Arizona in its recovery. There are 12,000 new jobs and many are in high-tech and innovation, which is connected to the downtown innovation district, with over 50 members” in the Downtown Tucson Partnership. Gangplank, a collaborative work space, has two 3-D printers, which individuals may not be able to afford on their own. “The only requirement for membership,” says Jensen, “is that you give something back to the community.”

For Tucsonans wondering about a possible oversaturation of new downtown restaurants, “in fact, they’re all busy,” she says. “They’re offering menus you’re not going to get at the mall or in Portland.”

Janos Wilder’s Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails jumped into the restoration earlier than most. “I’m a double pioneer,” says Wilder, referring to his first Janos location in the 1980s, which is now home to Café a la C’Art. “I had a really good feeling about downtown. I thought about [a new site] two years or more” before opening Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails three years ago. “I could see there was a real renaissance taking place. Risk-takers first came. I didn’t think of myself as a risk-taker, just someone who thinks differently.

“I’m hoping for a continuation of this positive energy. We need an expansion of the imagination, of what’s possible for downtown to really thrive,” he says, including what people need for daily life — more housing for families and singles, more retail shops, a drugstore and market. “In the past, there wasn’t a critical mass. People were wistful and hopeful. Now people are not just invested in their own success. Downtown isn’t an island.”

In the olden days — more than three years ago — Hotel Congress and Maynard’s Market & Kitchen, along with The Rialto Theatre, formed the nucleus for live music or late night eats. “It’s exciting that we’re going to see the University of Arizona and 4th Avenue even more connected to downtown,” Todd Hanley, general manager of the hotel and co-owner of Maynard’s, told the AJP. “There’s more synergy here now. When the naysayers see that the streetcar [set to begin running in June 2014] is working, an influx of private businesses downtown, you can’t dispute that. We all want to see it really get going,” he says. “People who go to other places like La Encantada will start coming.”

Maynard’s intends to initiate a new concept: more upscale, ready-made meals to take home, says Hanley. The restaurant will continue to host happy hour, dinner and late-night dining. “After a show at 10-10:30 [p.m.], people can have a drink and appetizer — finish their night in style.”

Across the street at The Rialto Theatre, which has been open since the 1920s and has been a live music venue for the past 15 years, people will find diverse events appealing to all age groups, says Rialto

talent buyer Kris Kerry.

At the other end of the Rialto block is the new restaurant, Proper. “The building’s beautiful appearance speaks for itself,” says Tina Femeyer, general manager. “We fine-tune the menu based on what’s in season. We serve mostly craft beers and wine from Arizona wineries. We’re proud to be able to do that [and feature menu items] from local cheese makers, ranchers and farmers. It all ties in.”

Now that the streetcar construction is done, even though it isn’t running yet, says Randy Peterson, general manager of KXCI Community Radio on South 4th Avenue, “we’re getting more advertising with this surge of new businesses and events, bringing people downtown.”

Heading west on Congress Street, tucked into a small office building on Broadway, is Julie Ray Creative. A visual communications agency specializing in graphic design, web design, marketing and public relations, Ray’s professional team also helps businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and individuals from downtown and beyond to create social media strategies.

47 Scott and Saint House Rum Bar are both owned by Travis Reese and Nicole Flowers. A neighborhood bistro with everything from brunch to happy hour to dinner, 47 Scott (named for its address) features American comfort food. Around the corner on Congress, the recently opened Saint House Rum Bar adds a new, more exotic cuisine to downtown — Caribbean.

On a Roll, owned by Dominic and Theresa Moreno, is counting on the boom in student housing and more people moving into downtown. Serving sushi and Asian fusion cuisine, says Dominic, “we’re filling a niche that fits into Tucson’s growing diverse community.”

Amy Pike, owner of A Perfect Pantry, hopes for an influx of downtown residents to frequent her mercantile company on Congress. “We sell candy, cards, kitchen utensils, cookbooks, towels, aprons, teas, you name it, in more than 3,000 square feet of space,” says Pike.

Smaller spaces are making their mark too. Maker House is a place for artisans, powered by Artfire.com. Located inside the historic Bates Mansion, it offers music, theatre, technology classes and events.

The Desert Bloom Boutique has been in its Stone Avenue location for more than 10 years. “We’re a women’s boutique specializing in customized, personalized shopping,” says owner Claudette Myers. “I help dress women for their personality, sassy women who don’t know how old they are. We’re too busy leading important lives.”

June’s Corner Store, owned by June Hale, near the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, is a quaint boutique, says Hale. “We have everything from inspirational and unique gifts to heartfelt greeting cards, to figurines, plush toys, mugs and colorful totes.”

Off of 4th Avenue, Fed by Threads is “an ethical boutique,” offering organic, vegan, stylish clothing for men and women. The shop donates a portion of each sale to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Feeding America.

The Tasteful Kitchen restaurant caters to anyone wishing to reduce or banish their carnivorous tendencies. “I think people have raised consciousness about eating good, clean food, especially with more artists living in this area” on North Stone Avenue, says Keanne Thompson, co-owner, with her sister Sigret Thompson, of the modern vegetarian restaurant. “We’re mostly farm to table, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, non-genetically modified, raw food cuisine. Nobody else in Tucson is doing this,” she told the AJP. “Our sushi uses sunflower-seed paté instead of rice, filled with veggies. It tastes very much like a California roll but is a lot better!” The Tasteful Kitchen also offers cooking classes, meals-to-go and a private dining room for special events, always “using a minimum of processed ingredients, salt, oil or soy,” says Thompson. “We cook with whole foods as close as possible to their natural state.”

Café Desta’s four owners offer Ethiopian food. The lure to Tucson, for all but one, was to pursue studies at the University of Arizona. “UA students like the ambiance,” says co-owner Huruy Zerzghi (Zee), who holds a Ph.D. in environmental microbiology. Although Café Desta only borders the forthcoming streetcar route, he hopes it will bring in more business.

“We have students from Nigeria and India who especially like our spicy dishes, as well as American students,” says Zerzghi. “We also have eight vegan dishes and a separate room for special events. One UA student from Nigeria had her graduation party here.” For those UA students who like strong Ethiopian coffee, says Zerzghi, “it’s good for staying up all night studying.”

Another restaurant on the periphery of the modern streetcar route is Café a la C’Art, across the plaza from the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block. This past year the café started serving dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, but “we want to continue building up breakfast,” says owner Mark Jordan. “More business is bound to spill over with more development on the east end of Congress Street.”

The Tucson Museum of Art already draws both locals and tourists to that end of town. Current exhibits include “Han and Beyond — The Renaissance of China: The James Conley Collection,” “A Show of Hands” and “Bob Kuhn: Drawing on Instinct.” The museum also presents talks and classes and rents space for elegant fundraising events.

Ten years ago, Carrie Brennan, executive director of City High School, felt downtown was the place to be. “When you think back to 2003-2004, a lot of people thought we were taking a big risk coming to a downtown location,” says Brennan of the charter school on Pennington Street. “We wanted our students to take part in the transformation of downtown with service learning projects, fieldwork and internships. We needed to be where there was pedestrian traffic with commerce, the arts and government.”

Café 54, an urban, artsy bistro on Pennington Street, serves lunch to hungry teachers and others, Monday to Friday, from 11 a.m. to 2.p.m. In addition to tasty food, “we have a special mission here,” says program manager Orlando Montes. “We’re a training program that employs economically disadvantaged individuals who have neurological brain disorders, categorically known as mental illness. We meet these individuals where they are in their recovery,” helping them to gain future employment. And in early 2014, he says, “watch for our new Café 54 food truck.”

“It’s pretty darn gentrified these days. It’s a lot safer downtown,” says Lucy Mitchell, co-owner with Chris French of Small Planet Bakery, for more than 20 years in the same location on 7th Street. “It’s a lot better for the city now,” she says, noting the bakery’s increased business due to all the new restaurants downtown. Mitchell recalls Tucson’s “hippy history” in the 1970s, when the bakery was part of a vast network of collectives, which included soy and peanut butter collectives, supplying the Food Conspiracy Co-op, which still stands on 4th Avenue. In addition to touting their specialty breads, such as their house sourdough, Mitchell praises her cookie expert Rachel Kelty’s “triple-ginger moonies and super-duper chocolate chip cookies.”

“Our interest is in historic spaces,” says Amy Smith, one of the owners of Exo Roast Co., housed in an old warehouse building on 6th Avenue. “We firmly believe in keeping downtown spaces alive, and increasing walkability” in the area.

Rebecca Safford and her husband, Scott, owners of Tap & Bottle, also on 6th Avenue, “have been talking about focusing on craft beer and wine for a long time,” says Rebecca. “This model is popular on the West Coast in San Francisco, Portland and San Diego. It’s a combination bottle shop where you can buy beer and wine to take home, but we also offer a lot of tasting events, including how to taste beer and what to look for.”

Beers on tap change from three to 10 times a day, notes Rebecca, adding there are always around 20 different kinds available and six wines on tap. “We carry 450 kinds of bottled beers and 80 wines. There are no TVs. We have live music once a week. We have food trucks Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” she says, “so our cuisine changes every night. You can also bring your own food or order from our delivery menus.

“We urge people to hang out and love it when we see people talking to people they didn’t know before. We live downtown and love it,” says Rebecca, adding, “this was the time and place.”

New Mercado San Agustin businesses — at Tucson’s first and only public market — are also supporting collaboration. Blu: A Cheese Stop, now selling American artisan cheeses at the Mercado farmers’ market, will become a wine and cheese shop, adding small plates and salads in January, and now provides cheese platters for sale at Tap & Bottle, says Tana Fryer, co-owner with Kelly Fryer.

La Estrella Mexican Bakery, run by the Franco family, was one of the first to set up shop at the Mercado three years ago, says co-owner Isabel Montaño. “We took roots in the neighborhood we grew up in, the Menlo Park area. We live where we work.”

Anticipation for business success and more tourism is running high at the Mercado. “That’s why we’re getting in at the ground level,” says Mike Acedo, manager of Estudio Piel Medspa, whose owner, Kelly Muzal, is a nurse who worked at Canyon Ranch Resort and Spa for 20 years.

Agustin Brasserie, closed since June, will reopen in December as Agustin Kitchen, with new chef and partner Ryan Clark, a three-time Tucson Iron Chef winner.

Community collaboration is palpable. Ben’s Bells, located in the Charles O. Brown building that’s owned by the Arizona Historical Society, is open to volunteers who help create bells, supporting acts of kindness around Tucson.

Tucson history is also at play. Hydra has been in business for 19 years, says owner Margo Susco. “Ten or 12 years ago we expanded to have more ’30s, ’40s and ’50s retro dresses. We’ve always carried men’s Western shirts, high-necked Victorian garb, pin-striped clothing and corsetry — from basic to bridal to burlesque.” If people haven’t come here before or if they have, she says, “we hope they’ll give us a chance. They’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

David Fregonese, CEO of The Chicago Store, a Congress Street icon that’s sold musical instruments since 1919, is bullish about the downtown’s future. “We’re just beginning to see the first phase of growth now. With more entertainment, bars and restaurants, there will be more residential opportunities for people in the next two to four years,” says Fregonese. “With the streetcar fully operational you could live your life [going] from the University Medical Center to everything going on downtown.

“For The Chicago Store,” he says, “that means more happy people coming in wanting to play music.”