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S.L. trying to fill empty storefronts

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Main Street looks tranquil — maybe a bit too much so — but don't be fooled.

City leaders are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to fill a dozen and a half Main Street vacancies. They say the Olympics and the Gateway project are making their job harder.

Complicating matters: One property manager says he doesn't want — or need — the city's help.

Last November, Salt Lake City hired Ruth Jolley and her local firm, Site Reach, to act as a kind of matchmaker to help prospective tenants meet Main Street landlords. The goal was to fill Main's vacancies with long-term lessors — vibrant shops, restaurants and art galleries — in time for the 2002 Olympics. The street would be transformed into a day-and-night center of fun, Winter Games-goers would be impressed, and Salt Lakers would rediscover the charm of a pedestrian-oriented downtown, from South Temple to 400 South.

But with 28 weeks to go before the Games, Jolley has yet to sign a permanent tenant for any one of the 18 properties she's pitching.

Last fall, Jolley went to a New York City retail convention to market Main to retailers from around North America. "We did a tremendous selling job," she said. Then "many of our clients went to Gateway." There are other prospects out there who might move into Main storefronts — but only during the Olympics, to sell Games-related wares. When they skip town around Feb. 24, they could leave it looking ghostly.

"That's our biggest nightmare," Jolley said. "We want to send a message, create a legacy" of lasting liveliness.

City officials and property owners say the same thing. But that doesn't mean they're all getting along.

"The Olympics have skewered the long-term plans a bit, both from the property owners' standpoint and for anybody out there looking" to lease space, said Downtown Alliance director Bob Farrington. Some held out hope that Olympic sponsors would swoop in, purses bulging, to pay high rents for a Games-time presence, Farrington said.

There has yet to be significant swooping. Instead "there's this dance going on, that did focus on these short-term users. That was the sort of bird in the hand . . . and that had a tendency, along with the opening of the Gateway project at about the same time (as the Winter Games), to skewer the market a little bit for the longer-term tenants."

Jolley said her goal was to fill Main's empty storefronts by September. But Vasilios Priskos, whose Internet Properties leases numerous retail storefronts downtown, isn't particularly interested in the city's intervention.

Business people eyeing Main Street "came to me directly," he said. "I don't understand why the city is doing what it's doing."

Priskos is also annoyed by what he calls "the rumor mill" painting a dire picture of Main Street. "It's under a microscope right now," he said. "I'm so tired of everybody browbeating Main Street" property owners.

Site Reach and the city are in too much of a hurry, he added, when they suggest that property owners donate their vacant storefronts to local arts groups during the Games, for displays or performances.

"If the time comes and we can't lease the space, the property owners will do something with it . . . but we're not going to lay back and give it away."

Priskos added that he's negotiating leases with four new tenants: two cafes, one to be at 268 S. Main and the other at 149 S. Main, plus a pair of temporary Olympic-related renters. He also pointed to the downtown campus of Salt Lake Community College, to be located in the Prudential building at 115 S. Main. "The students will eat downtown, they'll go out and have a drink downtown . . . they will help support the night life." The college will open by the end of the year, he said.

"Gateway has definitely hurt us," Priskos said. Yet he's confident that Main's spaces will be filled by Games time. It won't be the Olympics or wealthy sponsors that save the street, he added — it'll be long-term tenants paying market rents ranging from $12 to $23 per square foot.

"I can't tell you one person who's going to have a windfall from the Olympics," he said. "I'd rather wait for the right tenant who would pay the right rent and have a chance of succeeding."

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com