VIRGINIA BEACH – Not that long ago it was an area of the city that most have described as “blighted” and was a place where few new businesses wanted to be despite its proximity to the bustling Oceanfront.
But since being designated as an arts district in 2015 the ViBe Creative District has thrived.
“There were a handful of longterm successful businesses here, but the majority of 17th, 18th, and 19th streets were largely vacant or underutilized properties that were ripe for redevelopment,” said Kate Pittman, executive director of the ViBe District.
She named the Runnymede Corporation, Beach Bully Bar-B-Que, Croc’s 19th Street Bistro, Wave Riding Vehicles and Wareing’s Gym as a few of the businesses that had found success in the area, despite the fact crime and a lack of interest in the neighborhood had stunted its growth for many years.
But now, she said, things are different.
Some 40 new businesses have opened up shop within the district’s boundaries since 2015 and Pittman said she’s gotten at least 50 calls in the past 6-12 months from businesses interested in locating in the ViBe.
That means commercial space in in high demand – and unfortunately in short supply.
Derek Borte, who currently has a building under construction on 17 Half St. that will create three new lease opportunities, said new commercial space is what’s lacking.
“There’s plenty of residential space,” said Borte, who also serves on the ViBe’s nonprofit Board of Directors. He added there’s a long list of businesses that would like to locate in the ViBe, but there’s little-to-no commercial space available. “That’s what sparked it (building a new structure) for me.”
Pittman agrees the availability of commercial space isn’t exactly keeping pace with interest from businesses who would like to locate there.
“There’s very low inventory right now. Only a handful of private property owners have shared that they have space or that they’re in the process of redeveloping to open up new space,” she said.
The biggest concern is maintaining the unique atmosphere that has been created by the small, locally opened, and arts-focused businesses that have become the heart of the ViBe District.
Pittman said as foot traffic and residential developments continue to grow, some of the larger parcels of land in the arts district could become targets of bigger, less quaint, national chains.
“While those are certainly profitable businesses and relevant in the modern world, we hope that the arts district maintains it’s authentic, small business charm,” Pittman said.
The goal, she said, is to successfully advocate for property owners within the district to “buy-in” to the “arts as a catalyst” redevelopment mission.
As property becomes available the nonprofit fields calls and inquiries. It’s not often that property is sold by Realtors, Pittman added. It’s usually by word-of-mouth within the district, often ending in a neighbor-to-neighbor transaction.
Following its designation as an arts district, the city provided specific incentives aimed at driving development and growth in the district, and a matching grants program for small businesses was also implemented.
“Honestly though, the one-on-one conversations with property owners have proven to be some of the most influential and critical tools in finding redevelopment opportunities,” Pittman said, citing WRV, Superior Pawn, and the Jones Property as examples of property owners who understood the value of a unique arts district and participated in redevelopment of their property to allow for additional growth.
While commercial space in the ViBe District remains tight and in high demand, Pittman said a couple of opportunities have the potential to open new commercial space in the next year or two.
“Later this year we hope to see the 300 block of 17th Street be redeveloped by a private business owner,” Pittman said. “And we expect that within the next two years several larger developments will be underway and open up larger lease opportunities that do not currently exist.”