Mix of ethnic communities, merchants has brought new life to Morse Road.
When Krieger Ford moved to Columbus' North Side in the fall of 1967, Morse Road marked the gateway into a booming residential and commercial district.
Northland Mall, opened three years earlier, and its Lazarus and Sears stores anchored the robust retail scene. Columbus Schools opened Northland High School in 1965 as it followed the residential surge.
“It was a vibrant area, with all kinds of retail and a lot of (residential) rooftops,” recalls Krieger Auto Group owner Doug Krieger. “Everybody wanted to be here.”
But that era of vitality slowed by the mid-1990s. It nearly collapsed when Northland's anchors closed their doors in 2001 and dragged stand-alone Morse Road retailers to the Mall at Tuttle Crossing, Polaris Fashion Place and, closer yet, the Easton retail and office complex at Morse and Interstate 270.
The shoppers went with them. Northland Mall closed in October 2002 as the last of its smaller retailers and kiosk vendors vacated the property.
But as the city and private sector fleshed out plans to revive the Northland area with road improvements and relocated government agencies, it's a wave of immigrants and refugees from Latin America, Africa and Asia who have kept retail activity alive—and, in some places, thriving—along Morse Road.
“Northland has this phenomena of new Americans moving in with larger families,” says Michael Wilkos, director of community research for the Columbus Foundation. “That provides many more consumers needing groceries and clothes.”
Wilkos contrasts the rebound of the Northland area and Morse Road with the high vacancy rates for commercial properties near the shuttered Westland and struggling Eastland malls. In those areas, he says, single-parent and single-occupant households are more common.
“Clearly, Northland has experienced a vitality and entrepreneuship that West Broad (Street) and South Hamilton (Road) have not.”
A Somali merchant class is among about 50,000 East African refugees who call Northland home. In the last five years or so, ethnic Nepali refugees whose families for generations had lived and worked peacefully in neighboring Bhutan have added to the mix of new Americans rebuilding their lives along Morse Road and Cleveland Avenue.
More than 15,000 came to Columbus from UN refugee camps in Nepal after ethnic tensions forced them out of Bhutan and they were shunned by their ancestral homeland in South Asia.
Within the Northtowne Centre at 2210 Morse Road, a multi-merchant collection of shops called the Global Mall emerged from the Somali community in 2003 just months after the Northland landlord shuttered the nearby mall.
The Global Mall actually helped jump-start the redevelopment of the Morse Road corridor as the relocated refugees ramped up efforts to establish an economic beachhead in their adopted homeland. The Global Mall features individual merchants within what once served as a T.J. Maxx and, later, an Everything's A Dollar store. They sell women's fashions, books, jewelry and other products. The mall also includes a bookstore, travel agency and a money-transfer service.
Owner Irad Warsame says Global Mall actually bought some store fixtures from the stores that had abandoned Northland.
“People were searching to establish businesses,” Warsame says. Many were merchants in Somalia before leaving their civil war-ravaged country more than two decades ago. While the immigrants had few resources when they settled in Columbus, they could band together to create a bazaar of sorts that could spread out the overhead. “If you can't make it yourself,” Warsame says, “you share.”
Bhutanese Nepali refugees have found northeastern Franklin County just as hospitable as they seek to rebuild their community.
“Columbus is very secure, very accepting,” says Bhim Bastola, owner of the South Asian Bazaar in a strip center at 1995 Morse Road.
“We left everything we had but brought our whole families,” adds Bastola, who also leads the Bhutanese Nepali Community of Columbus, a nonprofit. “Now we have our ethnic stores and businesses and customers.”
Bastola moved to Columbus five years ago after living in Cincinnati for five years. His shop has a corner offering jewelry and women's clothing, along with a variety of South Asian food staples and some basic American products.
One also can find a similar mix of ethnic and American staples in other shops dotting the retail landscape between Interstate 71 and Cleveland Avenue. Most notably, the Saraga International Market at 1265 Morse Road offers a variety of fresh produce catering to a base of ethnic African, South Asian and Hispanic customers.
The grocery store, once the site of a Toys ‘R' Us, also hosts individual merchants, including a halal butcher shop that slaughters and cuts meats—including camel meat—in accordance with Islamic dietary rules. The market also offers a non-halal butcher shop, a Mexican bakery, a Nepali food stand, a cell phone kiosk and a jeweler, among other businesses.
Salvadoran immigrant Aleyda Rodriguez says she learned about catering to an international customer base when she opened Ranchero Kitchen 3½ years ago inside Saraga, “in a small corner and five tables seating 25.”
She opened her own location in June at 984 Morse Road. It's a spot with double the seating and a much larger kitchen that's closer to I-71. Rodriguez says the multi-ethnic area has encouraged her to create new fresh fruit juices and recipes for her diverse market.
“We want to attract everybody,” she says. “I learned those in the Middle East like hotter (more spicy) food, so I make the chicken extra hot.”
The rejuvenated Northland community and changing ethnic makeup prompted Kroger Co., to relocate and expand its Northland store. A new $21.5 million, 108,000-square-foot grocery opened at 1745 Morse Road in October 2016.
Kroger spokeswoman Jennifer Jarrell says the extra 40,000 square feet of space allowed the Cincinnati-based grocery to offer 1,200 products geared toward international customers, twice what it typically stocks, displayed on three times the typical shelf space.
The new Kroger offers offal, or organ meats, as well as halal meats, and customers can order lamb carcasses.
“We did quite a bit of research; we knew we would have to re-merchandise the store to cater to the customers' needs,” Jarrell says.
Several other significant factors also came into play in the renaissance on Morse Road.
Columbus spent $20 million to improve Morse Road. The city's now-defunct redevelopment nonprofit, Columbus Urban Growth Corp., gained title to the 84-acre Northland Mall and chose Columbus developer Mo Dioun's Stonehenge Co., to redevelop the last sections of the property, now called Northland Village.
By mid-2005, the Ohio Department of Taxation had relocated into the former Northland Lazarus. The state agency employs 900 in the building.
Stonehenge attracted the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services into the former JCPenney store, where the Northland Performing Arts Center already had established an events center with the Vaud-Villities Productions troupe as a tenant.
Wisconsin-based Menards has anchored the eastern section of the Northland property for six years on the site once occupied by Sears. The store was the first of four the home-improvement chain has opened in central Ohio.
Separately, Stonehenge bought the former Kohl's department store across the street at 1700 Morse Road and convinced the Franklin Board of Elections and the county's print shop to relocate from Downtown; that added another 55 to 60 workers in the area.
All of this redevelopment proved most attractive to Mohamed Warsame, a Somali refugee who studied at Boston University to become a dentist before returning to Columbus in 2010. He opened his practice in a retail center at Stelzer and McCutcheon roads, then opened a second dental office in a retail strip center in front of the Menards four years ago. In 2015,Warsame bought the strip center that had three fast food restaurants and a Cricket Wireless store as tenants.
He says business has been brisk and the prospects for further stabilization and growth remain high.
“I have 25 or 30 years left in my career,” he says of the decision to buy the property. “I wanted full control of the real estate.”
Stonehenge Vice President Adam Trautner says the developer remains bullish as it builds a new strip center just west of the Northland Village McDonald's. It already has a couscous restaurant operator signed, he says, and other national tenants have showninterest.
Trautner says national tenants also have inquired about the old Kroger store at Karl Road that Stonehenge owns. It's the largest retail site available on Morse Road.
But he says Stonehenge also might consider a multi-tenant operation similar to the Global Mall.
“There's still room in the market for something like that,” Trautner says. “I think we can make (the area) even more diverse.”
Brian Ball is a freelance writer.