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Grove Arcade, downtown icon

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11/5/2012 - Grove Arcade, downtown icon
by Carol Motsinger and Jason Sandford - Asheville Citizen Times

The 10th anniversary of the Grove Arcade was an occasion for the South Forty to play and people to tour the historic building. John Coutlakis 11-2-12

The 10th anniversary of the Grove Arcade was an occasion for the South Forty to play and people to tour the historic building. John Coutlakis 11-2-12 / John Coutlakis/jcoutlakis@citizen-times.com

ASHEVILLE -- Grove Arcade architect Charles N. Parker imprinted builder E.W. Grove's intention for the building in its cream-colored terra cotta tiles -- almost 300 times.

Grove conceived the city's largest and oldest commercial structure on Page Avenue to be the heart of his adopted hometown.

Forty-eight sets of intertwined hearts, 48 hearts and 150 double hearts adorn the ornate Gothic revival structure. Each is both a valentine and a memorial to an ambitious mission that has been modified and remodeled, tempered and traded over the structure's storied decades-long history.

Since it's opening in 1929, Grove Arcade's history has been marked with visions dashed by war and recession. But also by evolution, adaptation and power of community.

That last decade was celebrated Friday, which marked the 10th anniversary of the building's grand reopening back to Grove's original marketplace vision, complete with stores, restaurants and offices.

Today, the arcade is home to 37 businesses, including 14 original tenants. It's home to 74 full-time jobs and 110 part-time jobs, not including the second-floor offices. The exact number of Grove Arcade visitors annually is not known, but the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce reports that more than 500,000 people pass by the south corner of the arcade at Battery Park, making it one of the busiest corners in the city.

Several of the businesses that started in the arcade have grown to occupy larger spaces, said Ruth Summers, executive director of the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation since 2004.

Community leaders and residents formed the foundation nonprofit in 1992, after then-Grove Arcade resident the National Climatic Data Center announced plans for its current home on Patton Avenue.

Laura Copeland, vice chairwoman of the arcade foundation board, said she was "thrilled" with the state of the arcade. "When I first came on board, our hope was to be able to have entrepreneurs grow their businesses there, almost like an incubator, and it was fairly important to us that it represent an authentic Asheville," she said.

"Over time, we understood it was critical to stay authentic but for it to be viable as well, with successful businesses that could grow. We've worked hard to keep it a unique mix of restaurants and interesting shops, but with businesses that have a strong business model to make sure the arcade is stable with strong occupancy."

First of its kind

The Grove Arcade was the nation's first indoor shopping arcade when it opened in 1929. It was the center of Asheville's commercial and civic life until it was taken over by the federal government in 1942 as part of the war effort. It used the building until its last occupant, the National Climatic Data Center, moved to Federal Plaza on Patton Avenue in 1995.

After the addition of two new businesses -- Caravans, a clothing boutique, and Battle Square Barber Shop -- in the last month, Summer said the building's occupancy is at 98 percent. The only vacant space is the former Fine Arts League spot, which will house entries in Grove Park Inn National Gingerbread House Competition during the holiday season.

"I think that's a pretty good track record," Summers said.

Aaron Zaretsky, the arcade's first director, was instrumental in helping raise $13 million to get the arcade renovations off the ground. Zaretsky came to the arcade with extensive experience managing Pike Place in Seattle, one of the oldest public farmers markets in the U.S.

The in itial vision for the Grove Arcade was to "create a market that was exclusively occupied by owner-operated small businesses that focused on fresh food and that had a strong representation of start-up and women- and minority-owned businesses," Zaretsky said.

The arcade's redevelopment came at a time when Pack Square "was still relatively dead, and it seemed like Asheville needed a heart and soul to bring people back downtown and create jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities," he said.

Over time, that vision gave way to different priorities, said Zaretsky, who owns his own business, Public Market Consulting, in which he works with cities and community groups to create public markets.

"Many of the uses today are very distant from the purposes for which people donated money and worked hard to bring back the arcade," he said. "Furniture for gated communities is not what anyone had in mind," he added.

"Clearly Asheville is an incredible place for fresh food and there is a tremendous commitment to locally sourced food," Zaretsky added. "I think if the market had been allowed to continue in the direction it was started, it would have been very successful."

Summers said the arcade has $4 million in debt it is paying off; the city of Asheville owns the building and the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation is part of the lease. (For more on the complex ownership of the building, see the Grove Arcade Q&A at CITIZEN-TIMES.com.)

In recent years, the city has lowered the foundation's annual debt payments.

Cycles and shifts

Grove Arcade schemes have shifted -- and been stunted -- in cycles since the original excavation for the building site in spring 1926.

Grove's lofty dreams for the arcade included not only the commercial mall with a sky-lit arcade, but also roof gardens and assembly rooms, topped by a central skyscraper tower. The plans crumbled with the crash of Wall Street.

The original renovation plans announced in 1997 included a hotel, and there was even talk from developers about installing a skating rink on the roof.

Bill Griffin, co-owner of arcade business Four Corners, said the changes in vision and plans can be simply credited to demand.

"The whole concept of the new Grove Arcade was developed was that it would be more of a destination for locals, with people selling fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and cheese," he said. "All of that is market-driven. If those sort of vendors opened and failed to do business at the level they had hoped to or needed to stay open, someone else is going to move in and try to make a go of it. The whole idea of 'if you build it, they will come' doesn't always hold true."

Over the years, the lack of parking has been an issue for downtown merchants, emerging as particularly a deterrent for locals to travel downtown for everyday needs.

It's been a sore spot at times for the arcade, too. Some merchants have said through the years they believe the city was obligated to provide more parking, which would increase the number of arcade customers and visitors.

The city has looked at several parking plans, including building a deck. But those plans fell through. Summers said she's happy the city provides 45 spaces on O.Henry Avenue in a surface lot owned by AT&T. She also said she thought the public parking deck below the Aloft Hotel on Biltmore Avenue might help free up spaces around the arcade.

Griffin was once an Asheville visitor: He moved Four Corners from Florida, and opened in the Grove Arcade in the spring of 2004.

"When we opened, we were at a tiny spot on the north end of the building in a less than 500 square-foot space," he said, noting they originally specialized in imported handmade crafts from southern Africa.

After a year, the business moved to 1,100 square-foot space; then six years ago, to one of it's current locations that's 3,500 square feet. The shop also grew to specialize in home decor, furniture and accessories; it does still sell some of the southern African baskets that were featured in the first shop.

"Then in summer, we moved into the space across the hall, and keep our dining furniture and accessories there," Griffin said. "The arcade has been a great, great venue for us. It attracts a mixture of tourists and people from out-of-town. It's on everybody's radar. As a consequence, about 40 to 50 percent of our business is with out-of-town visitors."

Griffin noted that the Grove Arcade businesses that are successful are the one that appeal to both locals and tourists.

Future residents, as well, tend to make the Grove Arcade one of the first Asheville stops when they are still considering relocating to the city.

"When people are thinking about relocating here, buying a second home or a retirement home, they check the city out and come through the arcade," he said. "They see that we do furniture and accessories, and ask us about where to eat, for example. They might not be at the point where they need (furniture for a new home), but they come back in a year, 18 months and will have moved here."

At the Grove Arcade, the architecture is also advertising. Griffin said that if Four Corners was a standalone business -- like its sister store Mobilia on Haywood Street -- it would be responsible for all of the marketing and advertising. Since the Grove Arcade is featured in numerous regional and national publications regularly, as well as the city's wayfinding signs directing visitors to the destination, the store benefits.

"We benefit from not only our marketing, but in the way the Grove Arcade is marketed and promoted," he said. "It drives a lot of people to us."

It's partly for that reason that Griffin calls the arcade a "downtown anchor." Heart of the city, however, it isn't, he said.

"It doesn't mean, in any way, that it's failed or fallen short," he said. "It just is what it is."

Concerns and the future

For Denise Page, the Grove Arcade is both home and office: She lives in one of the apartments occupying the upper floors, and runs Vaquera, a year-old accessories and decor store on the first floor.

Her dual interest in the building has made her even more concerned about the foundation's next renovation plans: To re-roof the third floor (they also plan to re-seat the large stones that ring the building and comprise its parapet wall).

She is concerned how construction might affect visitors to her store, noting that sales are already a struggle. On Thursday afternoon, five people walked through the boutique's doors. "I have been very concerned because we don't sell enough to cover our rent," she said, noting that she pays with her personal savings. "I don't want to move ... It breaks my heart."

Page said she loves being part of the Grove Arcade community, noting that she wishes more locals understood more of the "fun things happening here and the boutiques in this building that are little more off the beaten path."

One solution: More social media on behalf of the marketplace as a whole.

"If my neighbors are not thriving, I can't thrive," she said.

This attitude is what has made the arcade successful, Summers said. "They publicize each other's events, do special events together. They try to help their neighbors. I think they don't think of it as the Asheville Mall. They think of it as a community."

Judith Oster, who opened Caravans on Friday, said she's excited to be part of a commercial community. Her previous stores in Virginia and most recently Maine, were independent storefronts. "I'm excited to get to know my neighbors," Oster noted. "I've never been in a location like this, where I am a part of something."

In a way, she was already feeling a part of the arcade before she closed her store a couple weeks ago.

"In the last two months, I had a sign at my store in Maine saying I was moving to Asheville," she said. "Every day, at least three or four women would say they lived in Asheville or visited all the time. And when I said that I was moving to the Grove Arcade, everyone, across the board, said 'You are in a perfect location. You lucked out.'"

Oster is still exploring her new place, as well as learning its history and contemporary role in Asheville's community. She can't say if it's the heart of the city or not.

"Does Asheville even need a heart?" she asked. "In Asheville, I get energy from so many different directions."

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