Tech Square Retail Continues Growth

When Georgia Tech celebrated the grand opening of Technology Square last October, the 13.3-acre mixed use development was hailed for its promise to transform the once dilapidated corridor on Fifth Street to a dynamic hub for campus energetic business district, and a vibrant new retail district for residents of Midtown. One year later, Tech Square and its partner development Centergy have fulfilled two-thirds of that promise and are poised to deliver the last.

"Tech Square was intended to connect Georgia Tech with Midtown and I think we're doing a good job," said Rich Steele, who oversees retail contracts on campus and is director of the Student Center. "We certainly have the connection with campus and the Midtown business community. We still need to develop it with the residential piece. We really want it to be a vibrant, dynamic space all throughout the day, evening and weekend."

With nine retail stores and restaurants on the south side of the Fifth Street, Tech Square seems suited to fill that niche. The Midtown residential community is growing quickly. In addition to the adjacent Midtown Lofts and Post Biltmore, Plaza Midtown on Spring St. and Spire on Seventh Street and Peachtree will soon add hundreds of residents to the neighborhood.

"We are finalizing marketing plans to help people in Midtown, Home Park and the surrounding areas embrace Tech Square as a neighborhood destination," said Scott Levitan, executive director of real estate development. The goal, he said, is to get them to feel they have ownership of Tech Square - that it doesn't just belong to Georgia Tech.

"We'd be really happy to have some of the 24-hour activity that goes on in places like Virginia-Highland," said Levitan. "That's really what we aspire to be."

With that in mind, several of the restaurants have obtained alcohol licenses since opening last fall. Fifth Street Ribs and Blues added live music at night. At Centergy, negotiations are under way for an upscale restaurant with a full bar. And St. Charles Deli recently began holding poker night on Thursdays to add business in the evenings.

Despite needing to spice up the nightlife, Tech Square retail has had a great year, said Steele. The Centergy building is about 92 percent leased, and the restaurants at Tech Square are on pace to generate $3 million in sales.

"What is really nice is that with every new restaurant we add, we don't see a dip in business for the others. There is continuous growth," Steele said.

The largest retail presence, Barnes and Noble at Georgia Tech, has also had a great year according to Director Jerry Maloney. Excluding textbooks, book sales have quadrupled since moving from the old bookstore at the Student Center, and licensed merchandise has increased 35 percent.

The store, run by Barnes and Noble College Bookstores, was the first in the company's new strategy of combining a college bookstore with a neighborhood superstore.

"It definitely has become a neighborhood store, particularly with the presence of the Starbucks," said Maloney. "It has become a place for students and the community alike"

Helping to complete the transformation to a community store is the new policy this fall of allowing Starbucks customers to use their Starbucks card to make purchases. Customers can add money to their existing cards, but can't buy new ones at the store. Similarly, Barnes and Noble customers can use their Reader's Advantage discount card at the bookstore, but the store can't issue new ones. The card is not accepted for textbooks, but is usable for items found in the company's superstores, said Maloney.

The Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center has also had a good year, according to Vicki Walker, director of sales and marketing. "We are pacing 16 percent ahead of where we were last year," she said, adding that Tech accounts for the largest segment of business for the hotel.

Adjacent to the hotel, the Global Learning and Conference Center provides conference space, distance learning courses, short courses and English as a second language (ESL) classes.

"This year, our rental income will be up considerably from last year," said Bill Wepfer, vice provost for distance learning and professional education.

"We're growing," he said. "We're never growing as fast as I would like to grow. I think some of that's tied to the economy."

Over the year, Wepfer said, the GLCC has seen a slight increase in enrollment of distance learning courses. Enrollment in ESL courses had seen a drop earlier this year, but that is beginning to turn around. The short courses, however, have remained flat, in keeping with national trends.

"We have seen a lot of growth in company-sponsored courses. Right now, that's being driven by defense technology programs," said Wepfer.

Overall the coming year looks good for Tech Square, said Levitan and Steele. There is concern about how the two-year construction project to add green space to the Fifth Street Bridge will affect business in the near future.

"It hasn't been that bad yet," said Steele. "The bridge project will be a wonderful asset to Tech Square in the long term."