Ward Morgan wants to make downtown Manhattan the Aggieville for professionals.
Morgan, owner of CivicPlus, which develops websites for local governments across the country, has several buildings downtown and is in the process of constructing a new one at the southwest corner of Fourth and Pierre streets.
His vision for the downtown area includes shopping and dining on the first level of downtown buildings, professional office space on the second and free WiFi for everyone in the downtown shopping district. He said his idea is to create an entertainment district for professionals to eat, shop and just “hang out.”
“I’d like people to be able to go for a walk and see interesting shops, places they would like to go into,” he said.
Morgan said he doesn’t want to see more law firms or insurance agencies on the first floors because that “doesn’t make it interesting.”
He said his main focus centers on Poyntz Avenue and the blocks immediately adjacent. He said the city has done an excellent job redeveloping the north- and south-end redevelopment shopping districts, but downtown needs help.
Morgan said he has bought several buildings in the downtown area, including the Marshall Theater building (which used to be a JC Penney), 121 S. Fourth St.; the old Sears building, 205 S. Fourth St.; the JoAnn Fabrics building, 320 S. Poyntz Ave.; the old Credit Bureau building, 429 Poyntz Ave.; and the Mason building, 317 Houston St. In addition, he said he is in negotiations for a few more.
He also has begun remodeling the buildings he owns and has specific shops in mind to add to them.
By the end of the year, Morgan hopes to have the new CivicPlus building completed, and the Mason building, Marshall Theater and maybe JoAnn Fabrics ready for tenants.
He said Marshall Theater already has several businesses ready to move in. He said there will be a yoga studio, a coffee shop, a clothier and a corner pub in it when finished.
Although he has recruited a few businesses interested in moving into the first floors, he said more are needed.
He said he will probably have to start a few of those businesses himself. He would prefer to find someone passionate about one specific thing and let that person move in. But until people start shopping more in the downtown area, businesses will be less inclined to set up shop, he said.
Habachi Hut, the longtime Aggieville restaurant that recently closed, is one of the businesses he bought and plans to operate downtown. He said it is a perfect fit for the downtown district and should open this fall in the old Credit Bureau building.
He said there is a “tipping point” where people and business begin to flock to a redeveloped area. He said if he invests in a coffee shop and maybe one other business, it will be enough to get downtown to a place where it hits that point.
Morgan said while he really doesn’t want to run a coffee shop, he might consider investing in someone who has an idea and a plan that would fit his vision of downtown. He said he would rather invest in a start-up that breaks than run them himself because it is the passion, and the quality products and services he is looking for. He said people passionate about something usually higher quality products than chain stores, so that’s what he wants to see.
Morgan said he would like something similar to Aggieville, but at the same time different. He said Aggieville is great for college students, but the professionals in town want something a little more their style. He said right now, when he hears people talk about downtown, they say, “Let’s go to Harry’s or della Voce or The Chef.” He said he wants people to say, “Let’s go downtown.” He said creating that kind of “vibrancy” takes time and “unique” shops drawing people to the district.
He hopes to attract the office-based businesses to the second floors of buildings in addition to creating shopping on the first floors. He said the idea of keeping law firms and insurance companies downtown is something landlords encourage. He said people in those types of businesses are usually “great” tenants because they always pay their rent and usually have longevity. However, he said it does not attract people to the downtown area for shopping and dining. He said those types of firms belong on the second floors, where office space is appropriate.
He said the CivicPlus building is designed with those specific goals in mind, and he is looking to remodel most of the other buildings in his possession to match. He would also like to recess some of the building faces in order to create sidewalk dining areas similar to what they have in Aggieville.
Finally, he said he would like to create a “shared” office space and bring free WiFi to downtown. A shared office is where people working out of their homes can rent a desk or conference room on one of the second floors downtown.
Morgan said the space could be rented by the day or by the month. He said he has talked to several professionals working out of their homes, and they want a place to work just to be around people on occasion. Others have complained that they get less work done at home than in an office setting, and a shared office would help them with productivity. He said in addition to the shared space, he is looking into bringing free Wi-Fi to downtown. He said free Wi-Fi and shared office space downtown will not only attract professionals for shopping and dining, but give them a place to “hang out” as well.