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Character, retention of businesses fuel expansion of Soul-y Austin

Thursday, November 10, 2016 by Chad Swiatecki

Though he works on the very same block, Josh Blaine had never been inside East Austin’s Vortex theater prior to attending a meeting of what is now the Manor Road Merchants Association. But as manager of the In.gredients neighborhood grocery store, Blaine said he fell victim to the habit that many business owners and managers develop of getting so wrapped up in their work that they rarely reach out to fellow businesses nearby.

“And after I had that moment, I was back there next week and have been a regular ever since,” said Blaine, who is now president of the merchants association. “I noticed when we started having the conversations when we were first working on forming the group that (business owners) were talking about wanting to build a shared identity for the area, and lots of other people echoed that.”

The Manor Road group became an entity officially recognized by the city of Austin over the summer, one of three neighborhood merchant associations formed since the launch of the Soul-y Austin Business District Incubator project in 2014. Soul-y’s stated purpose is to stabilize and grow business districts that provide a distinct neighborhood character that could be lost through either small-business attrition or uncoordinated growth.

The Manor Road district is joined by the Red River Cultural District and the cluster of small businesses on East 12th Street in the Soul-y program, with three more hubs – South Congress Avenue, North Lamar Boulevard and East Cesar Chavez Street – in the exploratory stages of enrolling.

While promoting and guiding merchant association formation is the backbone of the program, Soul-y also has the ability to provide advice on place-making, idle space utilization and advance infrastructure improvement efforts and can bring in outside experts when appropriate.

At a recent meeting of the Austin Music Commission, Soul-y program manager Nicole Klepadlo gave a progress report on the Red River efforts, which are centered around bolstering the live music venues in the area that increasingly face redevelopment and rent increase pressures.

The changing makeup of the area has made for some odd bedfellows in the group – members include ritzy boutique Hotel Indigo and often-dingy music clubs like Empire Control Room or Barracuda, among others – but there is unity on issues like calling for sidewalk and lighting improvements, reducing vagrancy and drug use by the homeless population and bringing more daytime business activity into the area.

Having Klepadlo, who leads Soul-y as a unit of the city’s Economic Development Department, available to address business needs gives those areas a presence within City Hall. She’s also been able to martial different departments together at the same time, which has led to many decision-makers taking a tour of the Manor district with business owners this summer to highlight areas of need and discuss ways to coordinate improvement efforts.

Klepadlo said that judging the effectiveness of Soul-y’s efforts around the city will come from measuring long-term investment in the areas, retention or growth of businesses and jobs, and sales increases caused by specific efforts like regular block parties among the businesses.

And while the expressed goal of Soul-y is to strengthen the locally owned character and business strength of the various districts, Blaine admitted that one possible result of its success could be increasing property values and development interests that have the potential to force out some of those very businesses.

“It can obviously help stabilize existing businesses in the area, but there’s irony in making better sidewalks and improving infrastructure because any way you cut it, that increases the attractiveness of the district for everyone else,” he said. “That could undermine their ability to stick around over the long haul. There might be nothing we can do to avoid that, other than doing as much as we can to help one another be successful.”

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Photo: City staff explores the Manor Road corridor.

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