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As songwriter Bill Withers sang in “Ain’t No Sunshine,” some commercial properties on East Sunshine Street in Springfield face “only darkness every day.”
Amid the ongoing dispute between developers and neighbors in the University Heights neighborhood, talk of medians being placed on Sunshine Street east of Glenstone Avenue and the continuous development on West Sunshine (including the question of whether a second Target is coming), a busy stretch of road between all of that faces its own unique challenges.
Sunshine, between National and Glenstone, is home to Mercy Hospital, some of Springfield’s busiest intersections and several new developments and businesses. Nonetheless, commercial vacancies are abundant.
“This is one of those subjects that we need a 30,000 foot view of,” said Vicki Pratt, the vice president of economic development at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
It is a subject that factors into community discussion about the proposed development known as The Heights, which involves 2.6 acres at the corner of National and Sunshine, catty corner from Mercy Hospital. The City Planning and Zoning Commission has set a vote for April 20 on a proposal to rezone the property from single-family residential to general retail. City staff is supporting the plan that would establish a conditional overlay district to allow for a mixture of commercial and residential uses.
Longtime Sunshine Street business operator weighs in on surroundings
Just shy of a mile, Sunshine Street from National to Glenstone features at least nine empty commercial spaces.
A Springfield Daily Citizen reporter walked that entire stretch of road and identified “for lease” signs or empty spaces at 1251, 1301, 1300, 1345, 1403, 1411, 1421, 1452 and 1500 E. Sunshine St.
Sidewalk along that stretch of road is sparse and inconsistent, at best.
While it remains occupied, another space at 1452 E. Sunshine St. could soon lose another tenant, as Sunnyland Travel Center has suspended operations and anticipates a “permanent closure,” according to their website.
Amid all of the vacancies, ongoing renovations are taking place on some properties.
The former Guaranty Bank at 1510 E. Sunshine St. has recently been covered in black paint, and renovation and additions at Plaza Towers, 1736 E. Sunshine St., continue. They have already announced at least one new tenant, a coffee shop called Smooth Coffee.
Kaleidoscope, a piercing shop, tattoo studio and retail storefront located at 1430 E. Sunshine St., recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary. As the business evolved over five decades, so has Sunshine Street, and the owners have seen it firsthand.
Whitney Creehan, the store manager and daughter of founders and owners Tom and Pam Pierson, has watched traffic on Sunshine increase exponentially and their neighbors come and go over the years.
Looking across the street from Kaleidoscope, Creehan has a view of several vacancies.
At the corner of Fremont Avenue and Sunshine is an empty building dubbed Jaclyn Square. It is a relatively new development that was put up after Mr. Smith’s Fast Lube closed their Sunshine location in 2018. Since the building’s inception, it has yet to house a tenant.
Caleb Moreno, the president of Moreno Group Commercial Realty, told the Daily Citizen that the property sold within “four to five months” of the redevelopment. While he said the Moreno Group no longer represented the property and that he was unable to disclose the current property owners, Moreno said he believes they are considering redeveloping the property again.
The Greene County Assessor lists the current owner as USA Investments, an LLC with an address in Memphis. An attempt to reach the owners for comment was unsuccessful.
Next to Jaclyn Square is another vacant building, at 1411 E. Sunshine St., the former home of Thai Basil, a name that still dons its entrance. The restaurant closed in 2019.
It sits on the same property as the building that used to house Fishel Pools, a pool building business founded by former Springfield city councilmember and state representative Craig Fishel. The pool business has been in operation since 1976, but relocated in 2014 from their 1421 E. Sunshine St. location to 1856 S. Stewart Ave.
Empty buildings, vagrants — and a couch
Both the former Thai Basil and Fishel Pools buildings are owned by Zenith Enterprises LLC, which shares the same Memphis address as USA Investments.
In between the two empty buildings is a swath of asphalt — and on that asphalt sits a couch.
Creehan said the property has looked worse than its current state.
“The Fishel Pools building has been not only empty but, until about three months ago, completely overgrown,” Creehan said. “All of the windows were broken, people slept in there all the time.”
Additionally, Creehan said a driver had, at one point, backed into the Thai Basil building and the door was completely caved in “for a while” before it was repaired.
She also mentioned the vacancy left behind by Neighbor’s Mill Bakery and Café in the shopping center across the street from the Mercy Hospital parking garage. The shopping center, without a displayed name, is owned by Sagamore Hill Investments LLC. Sagamore Hill is an unofficial neighborhood in the southwest corner of Springfield’s Delaware neighborhood.
Neighbor’s Mill, with their (Springfield) flagship location on Independence Street, closed the Sunshine Street bakery in September 2022. The owners attributed the closure to rising food costs, labor shortages and other pandemic-induced problems.
Their vacancy is not the only one in the Sagamore Hill Investments shopping center, with another “for lease” sign at the address of 1251 E. Sunshine St., and far from the only one on that stretch of the road. An attempt by the Daily Citizen to reach the owners of the shopping center for comment was unsuccessful.
“For me, it’s just like, use the space that’s already available instead of tearing down trees and building new things,” Creehan said, making a reference to The Heights development proposal. “There’s all kinds of other retail — empty retail space and empty office space all over this town. To look outside across the street everyday does suck. We’d love for it to be something.”
Vacancies contributing to ‘degradation’ of Sunshine
Husband and wife Don and Lisa Fotheringhame have owned The Dub Center, a video duplication and editing service at 1433 E. Sunshine St., for 32 years — 27 of which they’ve spent at their current location east of the former Fishel Pools building.
Lisa described the shopping center across from Mercy as “not inviting” and said the entranceway is “horrific.”
“That’s why it’s not doing well,” she said. “I feel that it’s just very, very poorly designed. Very poorly offered to the public in a very industrious corner and they’re going to make it worse. It’s going to become far worse,” she said, if the city approves the development at National and Sunshine.
But the vacancies near Fremont Avenue and Sunshine have had a direct impact on The Dub Center, even if it hasn’t hurt their overall business. Lisa said they regularly have stolen vehicles dumped on or near their property and an increasing number of unsheltered individuals gather around adjacent vacant buildings.
“We’ve caught people on the back of our property, on our steps back behind our back door shooting up,” she said.
“This corner now, because they won’t do anything with these three buildings, it’s become now this whole part of another — to me, a degradation of our block.”
Despite vacancies, developer sees high potential at National and Sunshine
The 2.6 acres at National and Sunshine is owned by Be Kind & Merciful LLC, or BK&M, a development company owned by Ralph and Marty Duda, and former NBA players Anthony Tolliver and Brad Miller.
Even as commercial properties up and down Sunshine remain vacant, Ralph Duda is confident they will be successful with whatever rendition of The Heights is eventually approved and built. He is equally confident that the property that hugs the bustling intersection of National and Sunshine will not remain single-family residential forever.
“If you asked me, ‘Ralph, do you think that that spot at National and Sunshine should be residential?’ I will absolutely say no,” he said. “You get 70,000 cars going by a day. Back in the day, it might’ve been residential, in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. But it is no longer that and you can’t dispute that.”
The newer developments, such as Jaclyn Square and the shopping center across from Mercy, that have continued to deal with vacancies, have raised the question on how BK&M’s proposed mixed-use development with retail would avoid the same fate.
“There are seven vacant storefronts in the development across the street; will this development be successful?” was a complaint previously posed to BK&M at a neighborhood meeting, according to past reporting in December.
They responded with: “Applicant will not comment on another business’ venture or model.”
The number of vacancies in the complaint are no longer accurate, as Hurts Donut Co. has since moved its downtown location to 1231 E. Sunshine St.
In a March interview with the Daily Citizen, Ralph Duda acknowledged the state of dilapidation of some neighboring commercial properties.
“You look at Glenstone, you look at Sunshine east of National, you’ve got some beat up strip malls, some hole-in-the-walls, you’ve got multi-tenant strip malls,” he said.
He also said that he’s “not a fan” of the appearance of the Sagamore Hills shopping center, and that it doesn’t reflect the area.
Duda suggested that, even though BK&M’s initial rendering of The Heights was no longer accurate as for their intent for the property, any development they’re able to do wouldn’t contribute toward the “Glenstonification” of Sunshine or, in other words, result in the same level of commercialization as on Glenstone Avenue.
Duda is convinced that, if they are able to rezone the property, a mixed-use development that could incorporate residential and commercial tenants will be successful at that intersection due, in part, to the location and sheer amount of traffic that commutes through the adjacent intersection.
Traffic, retail trends, ‘medtail’ contribute to changing landscape of East Sunshine
National and Sunshine, as well as Glenstone and Sunshine, are among the busiest intersections in Springfield, both seeing between 60,000 and 70,000 cars on any given day, based on the most recent available traffic data from the city.
Between them, at the smaller intersection of Fremont and Sunshine, over 40,000 cars are still making their way through every day.
Despite the high traffic and high visibility of some of the properties in the area, it doesn’t necessarily result in businesses fighting for a storefront and may, according to some, be a contributing factor in the vacancies.
“Traffic patterns absolutely affect people’s shopping habits,” said Pratt, of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
She suggested, however, drivers may be more inclined to visit businesses in high traffic areas if they have multiple needs that can be served without having to constantly brave the roads, and that the diversity of businesses in, for example, the shopping center across from Mercy, is working to serve those needs on some level.
“How difficult is it to stop for a one-off as opposed to for multiple uses?” she asked. “If [people are] going places for health care, and there’s other retail that’s right in that same area, they park once and they might spend several hours in that retail area because they have to get an MRI, got to go get their teeth cleaned, but they have to pick up some groceries and they need a new pair of shoes and they’re going to grab lunch because everything is right there. Then, it’s a lot easier to justify having to get in and out of an area where there’s just a lot of traffic.”
Pratt said how Springfield is consistent with national trends in its increase in “medtail,” which refers to health care that can be found in retail settings.
The Sagamore Hill center is home to both Duff Family Dental and Ozzie Smith IMAC Regeneration Center, as well as restaurants and other kinds of businesses.
“Typically, the kind of people who own these strip plazas or shopping malls are used to businesses coming and going out of business, leaving and then they’ve got space to fill,” Pratt said. “So they’ve been very aggressive in trying to find more stable, long-term tenants.”
Retail trade employment has been in decline since before COVID, and that trend is expected to continue, in terms of both employment and industry output, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2022 report.
Partly because of that, and the rise in ecommerce, commercial real estate has, in general, faced a reckoning in recent years, which Andrew Chavez, the president of Community Mortgage Brokers and a commercial property owner, has seen firsthand.
One of Chavez’s commercial properties is the Sunshine Shopping Center at 1664 E. Sunshine St. The building currently does not have any vacancies, which Chavez attributed to the revitalization he and his partners made when they purchased the building.
“We haven’t seen the demand for commercial real estate here in Springfield be very strong over the last 10, 15 years,” Chavez said.
He said development in places like southeast Springfield has been seen as “the shiny object” but, because of that there is an opportunity for areas like the stretch of Sunshine between National and Glenstone. Chavez thinks the renovations taking place at the Plaza Towers could be beneficial for that area.
“I think, if a few more investors come into the area and start seeing the future value in it, that it can turn around pretty quickly,” he said.
Businesses like Kaleidoscope and The Dub Center both call Sunshine Street their home, and have for decades, but they’re both ready for change.
Lisa Fotheringhame said the northeast corner of the intersection of Fremont and Sunshine has the potential to be something “really amazing,” but only if the property owners use it effectively.
“We don’t really have a dog in the fight; we’d like it to look nice,” said Kaleidoscope’s Creehan, joking that a first step would be to remove the old couch sitting in the parking lot across the street.