Three restaurants are leaving downtown or U.S. 250's "restaurant row" in the city to move north near Premier Theater, but plans are already in the works to use one of the old sites for a new sports bar.
Taco Bell has already moved north to be near the theater complex, Casa Fiesta plans to open at their new location within a couple of weeks and East of Chicago Pizza has started construction on a new location. Casa Fiesta owner Ramon Ornelas said he would like to develop Casa's current location into a sports bar once the restaurant has moved.
Ornelas said he is focusing on a successful move for the restaurant now. "This is paying back our customers," he said of the move, because the new location will have more seating and more parking. "This will make our customers more comfortable."
Once the new restaurant is up and running, however, Ornelas plans to remodel the current location and add pool tables and other features to open a sports bar, possibly featuring seafood and soups. He already has applied for another liquor license since each location would be run independently.
The old Taco Bell building is now empty, but Sally Routh of Routh Realty said the company has had "quite a few" people tour the property and two parties have expressed "quite a lot of interest." She added that the company wouldn't make any announcement until the sale or lease of the property was finalized.
Bethany Dentler, economic development director for Norwalk, said the building probably won't stay empty long. "In looking back at the phone calls that I get from developers, there is a lot of interest in that route 250 corridor," she said. "I feel reasonably confident that space will get occupied within a reasonable amount of time."
East of Chicago Pizza will move from its downtown location later this year. Initial plans call for a move in August. The restaurant has been very popular with downtown workers and visitors for lunch because it offers a buffet, which means a quick lunch at a reasonable price.
David Gulden, main street property manager, said the current location has been successful for East of Chicago, but owner Ken Pittenger wants to "tap into the industrial parks for lunch and the movie traffic."
The restaurant's success downtown, Gulden added, should make it easier to fill the property once East of Chicago moves. "Ideally, it is going to be another restaurant," he said.
Dentler agreed that another restaurant would be a perfect fit for the property. "Just looking at the amount of downtown demand during lunch hour alone," she said, "I think a restaurant will do well."
Norwalk Mayor Sue Lesch said the restaurants' decisions to move north near the theater, part of a development project by Pride One, benefits the city overall. "Ideally what I want to see is growth everywhere," she said. "We want to see growth in the north and we want to see growth in the downtown area."
Losing the downtown location of East of Chicago will impact that area, she said, but added that Norwalk has a "vibrant downtown. We are in good shape downtown if you compare us to others."
Lesch also sees continued development north of town. "The proximity to Sandusky and Perkins and all that's going on there is an advantage," she said.
While the addition of three restaurants in the area is welcome, Lesch said, the city is focusing on adding more industrial growth in that area. "We're not looking so much for retail," she said, "but looking for something on the industrial side that pays a good wage and offers benefits stable employers. That's where I spend a lot of my time."
Lesch added that development must be balanced. "One of the big challenges is the balance between the folks looking to come and the folks we have," she said. She added some national chain stores have expressed interest in building on the north side. "I wonder what kind of impact they will have on our smaller mom-and-pop type places."
The north side of town also is providing more housing for Norwalk. Lesch said phase two of the senior housing there is starting. A townhouse apartment complex might be added if the developer is granted tax exempt status from the state for providing affordable housing, she said.
Even though development on the north side adds to Norwalk's tax base, the city schools will not benefit. That area is part of the Berlin-Milan district's tax base.
But Huron County Auditor Roland Tkach said the Norwalk schools will not be hurt by the move of the three restaurants. "The Norwalk district doesn't really lose," said Huron County Auditor Roland Tkach, "but the Edison school district gained by the new construction."
He explained that about 70 to 75 percent of property taxes go to the schools. Since the properties being emptied will still be taxed, Tkach said, Norwalk schools will still be getting money from the properties unless the old buildings were torn down and nothing replaced the businesses. Like city officials, he doesn't believe that is a likely prospect.