Thursday, April 05, 2018
ON THE AVENUES: New Albany's downtown food and dining scene is solid ... for now.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
Invariably when I sit down each week to write this column, I spend the first hour desperately searching for loopholes, trying to wiggle out of doing it.
Isn’t there a rerun, a trick, or something slapdash I can use to fulfill this obligation, which after all primarily is intended to suit my own standards of consistency?
But usually, after an hour of digging, reading and flailing, I get back on the beam and manage to come up with something.
Today’s “something” is shift. Shift happens, and so far in 2018, the downtown New Albany food and dining scene is shifting so rapidly that you can’t tell the changes without a scorecard.
Match Cigar Bar's branch in New Albany closed, and subsequently it was announced that a bar called Double Barrel will replace it (they’re working on licensing).
Roadrunner Kitchen sprang to life adjacent to the future Double Barrel, where Urban Bread used to be, leaving NABC Café and Brewhouse without a kitchen, except that Taco Steve moved in, and Bank Street Brewhouse was re-rebranded. Now there’s a vacancy at the kitchen incubator space in the rear of Destinations Booksellers.
La Tiendita got bigger, and following a fire, Hitching Post underwent a complete (and noticeably shrewd) rebuild. It has reopened for business. A stone’s throw away, Dragon King’s Daughter’s new location is being completed.
In the other direction, astride two-way Market Street, the Pints & Union pub is progressing toward completion, and Longboard’s Taco & Tiki is slated to open by early summer. Quills isn’t going anywhere, but the coffee shop’s footprint will change.
Consider that these comings, goings, reboots and launches already were a matter of public record prior to both Feast BBQ and Comfy Cow closing within days of each other.
Still, almost overnight everyone lost their minds.
It’s too strong of a reaction to conclude that downtown suddenly is in retreat. I’m hardly a serial optimist, but it’s premature to begin issuing doom-laden pronouncements about bubbles bursting.
However, there is a “correction” of sorts under way, and in truth, corrections are constant and ongoing. They're happening all the time. It helps to remember that grassroots entrepreneurial capitalism tends to lack a net. It’s unforgiving, and casualties are a constant.
For local independent business owners and managers, life stays complicated. Decision-making involves numerous moving parts, deriving from the input of hundreds of key players, including workers, farmers, bankers, media, middle men, lawmakers, and of course, customers.
Last week people were savaging Ryan Rogers for pulling the plug on Feast BBQ. Perhaps they’ve forgotten that he received national publicity when the restaurant opened in 2012 -- and with it, New Albany’s name went up in lights. It was a wonderful boost.
Since then, Rogers’ business model has thrived, and evolved. A five-and-a-half year run in the restaurant business is rare and enviable, and in 2018 he has multiple metro Louisville restaurants and other calculated uses for his time and money. He made an economic decision in closing Feast’s location here, and I’m reasonably certain the building won’t remain vacant for long.
Similarly, Comfy Cow has been through a lot lately. There was a recall of ice cream last year, and then a shift to out-sourced production; earlier this year, a new owner took control and decided that one Southern Indiana location was enough. As with Feast, there is a considerable (and purely logical) back story.
I’ve received no tips as to what might become of the Comfy Cow building.
Reader: “Roger, why don’t you put a Cincinnati-style chili parlor in there?”
Roger: “Why don’t YOU?”
Here's my two cents.
As it pertains to lifting all the downtown food and dining boats, together and as a unified growth sector of the economy, previously I’ve reiterated the need for greater cooperation between these entities in the form of a completed restaurant association.
Indie business owners have poured time and money into their businesses, and their potential influence is greater than they realize, although far less so if their clout isn’t combined and directed as one.
Rather than repeat these arguments, you can read the post here: ON THE AVENUES: Necessity was the mother of NARBA, a food and drink invention in need of re-animation.
Shift itself is perpetual, and it isn’t necessarily unfavorable, but in the aftermath of Feast’s and Comfy Cow’s departures, hundreds of opinions and concerns were emitted on social media.
What’s the problem downtown?
What can be done to solve it?
Why can’t we have (choose one) an axe-throwing range, Whole Foods, dirt bikes on the levee, and activities for children?
NEVER MIND, IT’S IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE OMIGOD THE PARKING IS HORRIBLE.
No, it isn’t, but obviously certain preconditions have quantifiable influence, including the economic climate as a whole, today’s snow storm, tomorrow’s heat wave, who we are as a city, where we want to be, and available options for getting there.
Of course, there is infrastructure: sewers, the power grid, water and garbage. Transportation concerns exist beyond coddling your ride: shall we remain 100% car-centric, or are there multi-modal mobility options?
(Jeff Speck thought so, but Jeff Gahan apparently doesn’t. Consequently a huge opportunity was squandered in 2017.)
To me, job one remains encouraging density in downtown residency, not by bribing huge developers to pursue one or two showpiece projects, but providing fair incentives for a dozen smaller ones.
The more people living within walking and biking distance of historic downtown business district, the better the business climate, and the speedier the shift to balanced offerings; as Bluegill has been asking forever, how far must one walk from his or her home NOT to drink craft beer or eat Peruvian street food, but just buy a damn roll of toilet paper?
Regrettably, a central truth recently has emerged from zoning decisions at city council, in that arriving at a working definition of acceptable density has become so tortuous and Byzantine that concluding how many angels can dance on the head of a pin sounds easy to resolve by comparison. Our community pillars are so terrified of their own shadows (and of those crowds in the council chamber) that they can’t settle on a consistent formula.
Still, my conclusion is that one good way to assure a future for your favorite downtown eatery or watering hole is to encourage residential infill. Several acres of downtown real estate have been scraped clean of buildings and now sits, coated with rain-deflecting asphalt, to be used only on widely scattered occasions as special event parking lots.
Until people are living downtown in bricks and mortar rising from the current barrenness, we’ll continue chasing our tails.
I’ve also come to realize that in spite of the advantages of having a combined Clark and Floyd County tourism bureau, which include a fine staff and some useful economies of scale, the city of New Albany needs to devote time and resources to itself, for itself – and by this I’m NOT talking about the blind man’s bluff approach of billboards and advertisements currently emitted by the city, which generally serve as mayoral campaign blurbs more than “Come to Squalidity City” enticements.
To put it bluntly, outsiders contemplating where to spend their money simply don’t give a flying fug who currently serves as mayor, whether it's Gahan, Real or the ghost of Erni. Rather, they’re looking for reasons to come check out the city.
Can we please begin providing them with these reasons, and not settling for North Korean-sized images of our own Dear Leader?
If we’re to continue reliance on the combined tourist bureau, then we need to negotiate an visitor center presence in Floyd County, preferably in downtown New Albany. I’m told this is something that has been considered. It’s time to make it real.
Finally, we need to be doing whatever we can to promote local independent businesses.
When it comes to the city’s typical economic development expenditures and abatements, it cannot be denied that the bigger the subsidy, the more likely it is being deployed to support chains and far flung corporate empires that drain cash from the local economy every single day.
Summit Springs is the most purely grotesque current example, an inexcusable and atrocious 100% car-centric environmental blotch, set to be stacked with national franchises offering low-income jobs to workers who can’t find affordable housing amid Gahan’s mantra of luxury-first.
Will the people staying in those hotel rooms even know there’s a classic downtown setting less than a mile away, or will they hop back into their cars and head to Louisville -- or Veteran's Parkway?
Yes, we have issues, and yet I think downtown food and dining is solid, at least for now. However, next year there’s a wonderful crossroads: a municipal election, and the chance to gauge the aptitude of political aspirants as it pertains to these and many other questions.
Start jotting them down, folks. This time, let’s make them answer.
March 29: ON THE AVENUES: Al Knable doesn’t lie, but the local Democratic Party is a flood-plain Pinocchio. Let’s censure it at the ballot box.
March 22: ON THE AVENUES: Remembering Max Allen, bartender extraordinaire.
March 15: ON THE AVENUES: The books I've been reading during the winter months.
March 8: ON THE AVENUES: Necessity was the mother of NARBA, a food and drink invention in need of re-animation.