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Downtown Flagstaff is changing

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- A pub crawl in Flagstaff is not for the faint of heart -- or stomach.

By the end of fall, there will be at least 18 bars to choose from in downtown Flagstaff. That's not including the eight establishments serving alcohol on the other side of the tracks in Southside.

For downtown, that's an increase of four bars: The McMillan, Firecreek, Majerle's and the State Bar. Each is currently under construction on Route 66 in storefronts formerly occupied by retail shops and art galleries.

The Daily Sun talked to a range of locals about the new businesses and what they might mean for the future of downtown.

An array of longtime downtowners weighed in on the issue, with some lamenting the loss of retail and others writing it off as just another stage in the ebb and flow of a historic district.

``It's a really rare and special thing that Flagstaff has going for it,'' said John Tannous, executive director of Flagstaff Cultural Partners. ``There are a lot of downtowns that would invest millions and millions downtown if they could build the vibe that Flagstaff has that is hip and cool and there are art galleries. There's a good mix going on''

Tannous cautioned downtown property owners to guard against raising rent to levels that art galleries and retail shops couldn't afford, as the galleries make up much of the draw. However, he said that he didn't believe downtown had reached that tipping point.

``If we continue to see art galleries go away or get squeezed out, you're going to find less and less traffic headed downtown,'' he said.

Shane Knight runs a popular photography studio out of downtown Flagstaff and says he recently outgrew the smaller space and took up a new location across from Heritage Square. One of the new bars is taking over his former space.

``The balance between bars/restaurants and retail is dangerously off kilter,'' Knight said. ``I am not sure what to make of it yet; however, it is for sure we are losing our unique downtown shopping experience. It appears the city has chosen to help corporate move-ins vs. helping mom-and-pop shops with parking issues and promotion.''

Knight doesn't place the blame squarely on the city, but instead says local business owners need to band together to lobby for their needs.

Some residents have also expressed concerns about the number of people drinking alcohol in downtown, while many others chalked up the change to downtown's vibrancy in recent years.

``With all of the vacancies downtown, everyone is flooding the area trying to get into prime locations,'' Flagstaff resident Natalie Garcia Choi wrote in an Arizona Daily Sun thread on Facebook. ``Bars work well downtown. I shop and eat downtown. If you want more retail, then support it and shop downtown. Everything isn't always the bars' fault.''

Stacey Button, economic vitality director for the city of Flagstaff, said there is no city program to bring more bars into downtown. Instead, she says it's a trend driven by individual business decisions.

Once a prospective bar owner has purchased a liquor license, or applied for a new one, they must pass a state and local background check and have their application approved by the City Council and the state.

For its part, the City Council does not see itself as being in a position to deny liquor license approvals just because there's a surplus of bars in one area.

``Most people on council say it's not our business to regulate how many bars there should be,'' said Flagstaff City Councilmember Jeff Oravits. ``It's more of a market force type thing.''

He said that in his time on the council, the city has only denied one liquor license -- at a gas station/convenience store in close proximity to a school.

The new business owners, only one of whom (The State Bar) is based in Flagstaff, said they saw an opportunity in downtown and seized it.

``We're looking at the downtown employees, the people that live there, the NAU students and during the summer and in the ski season, we're looking at the tourist,'' A.J. Sulka, managing partner of Majerle's Sports Grill, said of the business' future clientele.

The popular Valley-based bar will be setting up some 25 TVs in the first floor and basement of the old Painted Desert shop on the corner of Route 66 and San Francisco Street. Their construction efforts were delayed several months from the original opening date.

Dan Majerle, a longtime Phoenix Suns player, recently bought a house in the upscale Pine Canyon subdivision south of Flagstaff and spent time walking in downtown, stopping in various restaurants.

He decided that there weren't any mom and pop sports bars and only a handful of corporate places in town -- Majerle hopes to fill that niche.

The McMillan, which is being opened by The Vig, an upscale Valley bar, has already started construction across the street from Collins Irish Pub. And in the shop recently vacated by Sundara Art Cafe, Firecreek Coffee will be serving the Sedona company's brews alongside a full bar of alcohol.

Firecreek is already open for business and has picked up where Sundara left off on open-mic nights and poetry slams.

Just down the street, longtime Flagstaff Brewing Company owner Al Hennis said he had some concerns about the competition brought by so many bars, but not necessarily for his business, which is highly popular with locals.

``I don't see any reason why these business owners are going to be anything but responsible business people, but at some point you hit that saturation point,'' Hennis said. ``You only know when you hit the saturation point when you see people go out of business.''

Potential business owners might walk around downtown during a summer ArtWalk and think they can't afford not to open shop, but they aren't seeing what downtown looks like in winter, he said.

``When your doors are open and no one's in, sometimes you go to drastic measures to bring people in,'' he said, cautioning against cheap-drink price wars that could cause safety concerns.

Just down the street, local Flagstaff lawyer Brian Webb, 29, says he hopes to make a spot for himself in the growing craft beer market with the State Bar. His bar will feature beers brewed in Arizona exclusively, as well as a selection of wines from the state as well.

As a young professional who likes to hangout in downtown, Webb sees the district as a prime market for people like himself.

``There's remarkably little development anywhere other than downtown and Milton, so the tourists and locals have a habit of going downtown,'' Webb said. ``It's kind of a sweet spot for a lot of the younger professionals.''

As for the loss of retail, Webb says it shouldn't surprise people that a cowboy boot repair company and a piano clock business had trouble competing after downtown was revitalized.

``I think (for) the places that are closing down, the writing was probably on the wall 15 years ago because they don't fit with young professionals,'' he said.

Just off Heritage Sqaure, John Van Landingham owns and operates the core of Flagstaff's retail scene: The Old Town Shops. He says business is solid for his retail operations.

``I take a pretty simplistic approach to it,'' he said. ``I'm a big fan of all the historic photos of Flagstaff and downtown, and one thing I notice is that without exception the storefronts change. New stores come and go. It's part of the natural progression of the ebb and flow downtown.''

What today's consumer is looking for is drastically different than what downtown shoppers needed 15 years ago, he said.

Another major change is the density of people using downtown. When the district was overrun with dive bars and many residents avoided the area, there were very few shoppers or bar-goers.

But the revitalization project two decades ago gave the entire area a facelift that helped fuel the push that's still moving forward today.

Van Landingham says that the downtown business owners back then banded together to tax themselves to pay for the upgrade, and it returned huge dividends. The city picked up the tab for the infrastructure costs.

What business owners then weren't willing to swallow were additional self-imposed taxes to fund a long-term management plan to tackle specific issues. Van Landingham hopes that such a business improvement district will be in place by the end of the year.

The group will be able to focus on problems like a shortage of parking spaces or the need for an increased police presence.

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