NEWS

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May 23, 2008

For Harper Court tenants, nostalgia and uncertainty

Bruce Kyes, the owner of the Plants Alive florist in Harper Court, remembers when the Court was a bustling shopping center. Christmas was an eventful time for the shopping center's patrons and merchants, with a Santa Claus sitting for children and opera singers going from business to business singing carols. A garden in the middle of the center attracted children and served as an epicenter for community events. It was a popular spot for casual chess games and tournaments.

Plants Alive has been in Harper Court since its Hyde Park debut in 1965 and is the only remaining business of the original Harper Court stores. Since his store opened, Kyes has seen about 50 businesses set up shop then shut down, he said.

"They've come and gone; It used to be a much busier place," he said.

Over the past five or six years, Harper Court's business has gradually gone downhill, Kyes said.

"The remaining stores left because there started to be less and less traffic," Kyes said.

A farmer's market was introduced to the shopping center a few years ago, which helped some of the businesses but hurt Kyes's florist business, since people started buying flowers from the market instead of the store.

Last week, the University announced its purchase of Harper Court from the Harper Court Arts Council for $6.5 million and informed Harper Court business owners of the property's impending closure. Although it means that in the coming months Kyes will shutter his windows after more than 40 years, he said he is pleased with the purchase, adding that the University has shown concern about the center's merchants in the past.

"We just love their attitude. They were clear and helpful," he said.

Still, Kyes said Harper Court merchants did not know about the sale of the shopping center until late in the negotiation process.

"Originally we thought it was going to be sold to a developer who was going to tear it down. That plan fell through ,and we were really never told anything about it again. We did not even know it was up for sale. The merchants were out of the loop," he said of the process.

The assistant manager of Harper Court's Calypso Cafe restaurant, Brenda Forsythe, is concerned about Harper Court's, and therefore Calypso's, fate.

"The only thing I could be concerned about is what could happen to Calypso Cafe," Forsythe said. "It would be a concern to us at our restaurant. We are very established in this area."

Forsythe has not discussed the purchase extensively with the management team and has no idea what the University plans to do with Harper Court or when, she said.

The University has not announced its development plans for the property. Nevertheless, Kyes said that he has faith that the University will help business owners find other outlets when they're finally forced to close shop.

"They were very nice about it. We're going to stay here at least until the demolition begins," he said. "We're just happy that it's not a developer who is going to tear Harper Court down immediately and does not care about the fate of the merchants."

Kyes said that the opening of Park 52, a new American-style bistro, in Harper Court last month has brought increased business to the center's merchants. Plants Alive has seen an increase in foot traffic and sales, he said.

"We're happy about Park 52 opening," Kyes said. "People have been coming every day."

Park 52's Director of Operations Kari Fitzgerald said that so far the restaurant has garnered significant business. She added that the Harper Court location is ideal because of its proximity to the historic Checkerboard Lounge and the building's size.

Fitzgerald said she thinks the University's purchase will help Harper Court business owners, including Park 52.

"I believe it will positively affect our business. By revitalizing Harper Court it will help the businesses," Fitzgerald said. "People who would not normally come here will come here now. We're excited," she said.

"I do not see why anyone would be upset. I think anyone taking an interest in Harper Court is great," she said. "Anything that will bring more foot traffic into the neighborhood will help existing businesses."