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Neutrality and community: two words echoed by business owners when asked why they set up shop Downtown along Automobile Alley — the once-unlikely strip along Broadway Avenue from roughly N.W. Fourth to N.W. 10th streets — to stake their claim.
For years, visitors frequented the area’s gleaming car showrooms, kicking tires on the latest Buicks and Cadillacs. As the dealers left, the area fell into decline. It suffered damage in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995, and became an area of blight.
Slowly but surely, a few brave souls seeing potential in the properties began investing. Then, one group took a huge chance by building its headquarters in a vacant lot on the southeast corner of N.W. 10th Street and Broadway Avenue.
That group, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, began plans in 2006 to build a suburban-style space just blocks from the Central Business District. At that time, about the only neighbors were Java Dave’s to the east and Habitat for Humanity across the street. The next closest building was a derelict towing garage.
Nancy Anthony, executive director of the foundation, says it was about visibility.
“We wanted to be Downtown with easy accessibility and plenty of parking,” she says.
And that’s just what the foundation got.
While new concepts entered the Alley, others moved their retail businesses after years in other locations.
The first south Oklahoma City business owner to head north, but not too far north, was Schlegel Bicycles five years ago. Having a bicycle shop in south Oklahoma City for 14 years, Steve Schlegel noticed that about 70% of his customers were coming from the north side of town.
“It seemed like Automobile Alley was the nucleus, or the hub, and by moving Downtown, we were neutral,” he says. “It’s not the north side, and it’s not the south side.”
Since moving into about 6,000 square feet at 900 N. Broadway, Schlegel received an offer from his landlord, Meg Salyer, last summer. She had about 7,000 square feet across the street and was looking for a tenant.
“We were really busting at the seams,” he says. “It made sense to separate the business, with the pro shop in one and the family recreation shop across the street.”
Not everyone thought Schlegel’s move was a good idea. Allen Aboujeib, whose title is director of happiness at Blue Water Divers, had a dive shop near Schlegel’s south side location.“When I watched Steve move [to Automobile Alley], I thought he was nuts,” says Aboujeib, whose image of Downtown was that of crowds, traffic and parking woes.
But after keeping up with Schlegel, and with his own lease expiring, Aboujeib visited the area and became convinced that if a specialty bike shop could thrive there, why not a dive shop?
After opening Jan. 1, he has seen both familiar faces and new customers. Based on response so far, Aboujeib plans to install a swimming pool for practice dives in the back of his space at 718 N. Broadway Ave.
In hindsight, he says he probably should have moved sooner. While his original location was successful, it lacked a sense of community.
“I wanted to be more centrally located, and I wanted to be part of a community,” Aboujeib says. “Down here, we’re just a part of so many things.”
DOWNTOWN, NORMAN AND BACK
In December, Oklahoma Arts Institute returned home. The organization runs a summer arts program at Quartz Mountain for students and teachers from around the state. Throughout the year, students audition and submit works of art in hopes of admission.
It previously had offices at the Hightower Building Downtown, and then spent the last five years in Norman at the request of board member Molly Shi Boren.
But a few things were lacking in Norman. The group routinely ran short on meeting and storage space. And there was little room to grow.
In early December, OAI moved to a renovated 4,000-square-foot building on Ninth Street owned by Steve Mason.
On returning to Oklahoma City, specifically Automobile Alley, OAI President and CEO Julie Cohen says the move gave the group a more central location.
“It has certainly increased our visibility,” she says.
OAI receives about one-third of its funding from the state of Oklahoma for student and teacher scholarships. The rest is from donors. Cohen says the move back Downtown put them closer to where they needed to be: near the state Capitol and the state Department of Education.
“We work so closely with them,” she says. “And proximity to the interstate allows our donors from outside of Oklahoma City easier access to stop in and see us.”
Property owners Mason and Salyer not only have invested in the area’s revitalization, but moved their own respective companies, Cardinal Engineering and Accel Financial Staffing Solutions, to the Alley.
The two have found themselves in the enviable position of choosing tenants, rather than taking just anyone who can pay the rent.
Recently, Hideaway Pizza moved into one of Salyer’s buildings, and Mason continues to develop the stretch of Ninth Street east of Broadway into a dining and retail destination, including the Womb, an art space owned by Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne. Mason’s most recent addition is S & B’s Burger Joint on Ninth Street. It is the second location of the burger concept started in the Electro Lounge on N. May Avenue.
With many of the retailers being one-of-a-kind, or Oklahoma chains such as Hideaway, they have been a good fit, Salyer says, but she doesn’t rule out welcoming boutique national brands someday, such as trendy clothing and accessories store Urban Outfitters.
“One of the joys of watching this neighborhood prosper has been the homegrown nature,” she says. “We’re probably better suited to local concepts.”