After Decades in Decline Plaza District Sees Revival

Published: Wednesday, July 29, 2009 7:00 am By: Steve Lackmeyer

The Oklahoman

After spending a decade as a reporter covering everyone from the mayor to the governor, Janice Francis-Smith cashed in her savings and teamed up with her sister to open a coffee shop.

After spending a decade as a reporter covering everyone from the mayor to the governor, Janice Francis-Smith cashed in her savings and teamed up with her sister to open a coffee shop.

Francis-Smith and Harris, in turn, are the latest additions to the Plaza District, an inner-city retail corridor that a dozen years ago was written off to blight and crime.

Over the past couple of years the district, along NW 16 between Classen Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue, has seen an influx of businesses centering on the arts and the neighborhood’s multinational population.

For Francis-Smith, a resident of nearby Gatewood, inspiration to pursue her dream followed a visit to one of the district’s monthly festivals last winter.

"The space was open, the rent was wonderful and I figured we’d never have this chance again,” Francis-Smith said. "I cashed in my 401(k), my savings and went all out.”

Coffy’s Cafe, 1739 NW 16, run by Francis-Smith and her sister Denise McGee, features home-made breads, pizzas and other items that are made without gluten.

"Some people just can’t process wheat,” Francis-Smith said. "It can cause an insane number of physical problems ... and when my friend quit eating gluten, it made a huge difference.”

‘Area is wonderful’

Harris also arrived on the Plaza this summer after buying Bad Granny’s Bazaar, 1759 NW 16 — a shop that features vintage clothing, jewelry and furniture, old records, antiques, art and collectibles. The shop opened in the space six months earlier, but Harris, who had turned garage and estate sales into a hobby, saw potential to expand what was essentially an antique store.

"My son was 16, and it was time for me to get a job and I wanted to work for myself. I came in and got a booth,” Harris said. "And as I talked to the owner, I learned he was ready to move on.”

Since taking over, Harris has turned a back room into a listening area for old records that doubles as a performance space for high school bands. She also has recruited artists whose works vary from photography to international crafts. "I just love what’s going on with Bricktown and MidTown, and I think this area is wonderful,” Harris said.

Kristen Vails, hired to help promote the area when it was declared a Main Street district, has seen increasing interest after each opening and new event.

She estimated more than 500 people attended a street festival that coincided with the opening of the Velvet Monkey salon.

Attracting quality

Jeff Struble, board president, estimates the district’s retail corridor is nearing 100 percent occupancy. Struble, who has renovated several of the commercial buildings and also built housing along NW 16, believes the district must next attract higher quality venues.

"We’ve got people looking at renting the remaining empty spaces,” he said. "The next step is to get more quality, more artists and restaurants, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

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