When the new owners of Tangles Salon & Spa bought the business last year, they did so with a move in mind. After nearly 30 years in business, the salon did a steady trade with many regulars, but owners Carrie Harris and Marsha Hicks thought it could do better with a short move across State Boulevard to Georgetown Square.
Their moving into a long-vacant slot in the shopping center this summer -- coupled with an elaborate renovation of the space -- appears to have paid off. Their business is up dramatically since they've moved into their much larger and more visible location.
“We were hidden away in an office complex,” Harris said of their old location. “Now we have a lot more walk-ins.”
In their first 10 days of business, Hicks said, they had 27 walk-ins, compared with almost none in their old location. To keep pace with the increased business they're attracting, they've added five stylists -- for a total of 14 -- and they're looking to hire more, Harris said, plus a massage therapist and an aesthetician, for a total of two people offering each of those services.
They aren't growing alone. The entire shopping center is rebounding from its low point during the recession, when it was about 30 percent vacant, said Steve Jehl, Georgetown's manager and one of its owners. Now it's up to about 80 percent of its square footage rented, which is better than the overall rate of retail occupancy in Fort Wayne, he said.
How did Georgetown come back? Much of it goes back to the foundations his father, the late Tom Jehl, laid when he built Georgetown in 1968. His father, in partnership with his brothers, had been building homes since the 1950s, and he liked the prospects for both homes and commercial property on the northeast side of Fort Wayne.
“He couldn't find anything wrong with it,” Jehl said of his father. “There were no railroads to tie up traffic. There were no heavy industries for people to object to. There were no flooding issues or low-lying areas.” The elder Jehl and other builders launched a boom in home construction in the area in the mid-1960s, and Tom Jehl had a shopping center in mind as a hub. By 1968, there were enough households in the area for him to secure commitments from two crucial anchors -- Lincoln National Bank and Rogers Market. The traffic those anchors ensured was enough to draw a full slate of tenants. Business was so strong that the shopping center expanded four times between 1968 and 1976.
Steve Jehl and his sister, Maureen Jehl Partee, who handles promotions for Georgetown, both credit their father with many insights into creating a sense of community among merchants and their customers that helped sustain Georgetown.
A prime example came early on, when Tom Jehl donated land for the Georgetown branch of the Allen County Public Library. “It was one of the very first times in the country a library went into a shopping center,” Steve Jehl said. “It fast became the (library's) most-visited branch.”
Through recessions and booms, Georgetown remained busy and continued establishing traditions that cemented it as a neighborhood hub, such as inviting kids to trick-or-treat there at Halloween. In fact, it didn't have its first vacancy until about 2000, Steve Jehl recalls.
The problem, as he looks back, is a problem that has afflicted every corner of the city. “There was too much building,” Steve Jehl said. The boom in home construction that lasted through about 2006 was accompanied by an overly optimistic boom in building retail space. In retrospect, it was more than Fort Wayne needed or could support.
The shopping center had many setbacks -- its theaters becoming discount theaters, then closing entirely, for example -- but it kept its key anchor, now a Kroger supermarket, which has been expanded and renovated through the years. “A supermarket is the lifeblood of a shopping center,” Steve Jehl commented.
The Georgetown library branch has remained busy throughout. Jehl, his sister provide continuity in family management of the center, and Steve Jehl's son, Russ Jehl (better known as a member of Fort Wayne City Council) is the leasing agent for Georgetown.
Another element of the recovery is flexibility. The theater building didn't have to remain a theater; instead, they redid its interior, and that building is now anchored by a Dollar General store.
And Partee has helped create new events to build on Georgetown's position as a community center, such as a weekly farmers' market, kids days, a 5K race for women and cruise-in. She added another innovation this summer: concerts by popular bands, sponsored by Parkview Hospital, paired with arts performances, such as the Philharmonic brass quintet, supported by grants from Arts United.
“You don't need to live in West Central to appreciate the arts; you don't need to live near Jefferson Pointe to afford it,” Partee said.
There's no underestimating the influence of their daily involvement in the shopping center, either.
The proprietors of Tangles saw that firsthand, from the way Steve Jehl worked with them on financing for their renovation to a more revealing personal touch.
They'd both visited the salon that was in their Georgetown space, but which had been gone for six or seven years. When they took over the space and began renovations, they were surprised to see the same pool of koi that had been a centerpiece of the previous spa. The koi were alive and thriving.
“Steve stopped in every day and fed the fish,” Harris said. There were no koi in their plan for the expanded Tangles, but they found homes for all the fish before they filled in the pool, she said.