Modern day ghost town

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December 1, 2009

1:36 AM

Across campus, there seem to be two prevailing sentiments toward High Street, the relatively new mixed-use commercial and residential development located off of Richmond Road: “High what?” and “Oh, you mean Movie Tavern?”

Although the complex is close to campus and currently houses a popular hamburger joint, a movie theater with the cheapest tickets in town, and various apartments popular for off-campus housing, it still hasn’t become the college hangout people had expected.

Although there are empty buildings still waiting to be filled by businesses, the often-empty parking lot also indicates that business is still not quite booming.

“I always passed it but I never knew what was in there until I saw the sign for Five Guys one day before fall break,” Tatiana Muldrow ’11 said. “I definitely didn’t know it was called High Street. I think a lot of people don’t know it’s there.

Although the commercial section of High Street has been open since the spring of this year, there have been only two operating businesses — Movie Tavern and Five Guys. The emptiness of the complex has started to draw attention from town members both on campus and in the surrounding community.

In a few ways, High Street is reminiscent of a midwestern ghost town — deserted buildings, silent streets and an expanse of dusty dirt from the on-going construction.

The nation’s poor economic situation is playing a major role in the limited selection of businesses looking to open or expand.

“While we’ve had many retailers express interest in locating their business at High Street, they are being more cautious about opening a new business, relocating or expanding during these economic times,” Lydia Kingsbury, the leasing agent for High Street, said.

Kingsbury, who is the contact for retail opportunities in High Street, said businesses are not the only ones being cautious. Banks and lenders are being more and more selective in deciding which loans to grant, making the decision to open, move or expand to new locations like High Street even more difficult for retailers.

In spite of the economic obstacles in place for hopeful businesses, there are promising signs pointing to a High Street that will be bustling with activity in future months as Plaza Azteca, a Mexican restaurant, is adding the finishing touches to its establishment and construction on a chocolate and desert shop, Kilwins, is coming along well.

“We have five businesses under construction at this time — three of which are scheduled to open in the next few weeks,” Kingsbury said. “As we have been seeing the economy improve, we have been seeing more retailers start discussions about opening their business here.”

The Williamsburg Trolley has also helped business since it began running in mid-August. The trolley, which includes High Street as one of its stops, has exposed students to the High Street area while they are on their way to other destinations like New Town or Merchants Square. It has also made it more convenient for students to go on weekend excursions to Movie Tavern or Five Guys.

“Every time I’ve been to the Movie Tavern, I’ve ridden the trolley,” Miriam McPhie ’11 said. “That was only two times, but I thought it was pretty cool. I really liked the theater’s atmosphere.”

There are big plans to continue to expand the area, including bringing in a grocery store, gym, nail salon and other retailers to provide a steady flow of customers to the shopping center.

“We are speaking to several grocery stores about locating here, Kingsbury said. “We are also speaking to a gym, a bookstore, dry cleaners, nail salons and several soft goods retailers. Grocery stores provide a great anchor for retail areas, while shops like dry cleaners, nails salons and other similar services provide constant foot traffic in the center which is great for all of High Street’s shops and restaurants.”

Although the economic climate is unsure, one thing is certain: slowly but surely, the High Street development is coming together.

“Our vision is to create a unique and vibrant community that can serve as a center of activity, culture, entertainment and more,” Kingsbury said. “We believe that High Street is and will be a wonderful place to live, work and play.”

Confirmed businesses to open are Kilwins, Terra Coffee & Wine, Plaza Azteca, Firehouse Subs and Subway.

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