Thursday, June 3, 2010

(Slow) Sales in the City

(I decided to post my final version of the article before the copy-editors got a chance to mess with it, they can really screw up a story with carelessness.)

Biz owners claim city of Tallahassee as partially responsible for diminishing sales

Katherine Concepcion
Contributing Writer
What do Vinyl Fever, Hometown Coffee House, and The Loop Pizza Grill have in common? All three have gone out of business within the past year despite having once been considered among Tallahassee’s most cherished locales.

Several other local businesses have closed as well, including two more coffeehouses, Brew N Bean, which was located on West Pensacola Street, and The Tuscan Sun Coffee House on Killearn Plaza Circle, which had only opened in Feb 2009. Callers to both stores are greeted with an automatic “no longer in service” message, emails to the Tuscan Sun come back with a recipient error, but both Web sites are still in operation.

The phone number for the trendy Rag Junkie, which opened in June 2006 and in the past was voted the #1 women’s clothing store by the FSView, has also been disconnected.

The U.S Government’s Small Business Administration has stated that as a general rule of thumb, new businesses have a 50/50 chance of surviving in the market past the first five years.

While all this news might cast a dark cloud over the heads of job-hunting students, it is worth noting that the latest figures list Tallahassee’s April 2010 unemployment rate as 7.9%, down from approximately 8.7% in March.

“The Greater Tallahassee area is an ideal location for small business owners,” said Sue Dick, president of the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce. “Home to the state capital, two state universities and other excellent colleges and schools, Tallahassee provides businesses owners with resources that areas across the country can only envy.”

Although management at The Loop Pizza Grill and Vinyl Fever stated current economic downturns were to blame for the closures, some business owners who are still in operation have pointed fingers at city planners and the near-constant construction around town.

“They were doing some drilling next to the Loop, then they moved it to the closed Wendy’s across the street - I don’t know what they’re drilling for” said Jeff George, owner of Sunberry, a frozen yogurt company on Tennessee Street which opened in Oct 2007.

“Street closures can also affect businesses considerably, and overpasses completely decimate business that depends on traffic in certain areas” said George.
According to two local business owners, the ongoing construction project on Gaines Street has had a negative impact on their sales.

“The economy hasn’t affected me as much because I’m not tied to a bank since I own my building, but Gaines Street has been closing at night, and this has really affected me, so I’ve had to become more creative, like selling ice cream to other shops, like the Black Dog CafĂ©” said Jeff Hunter, owner of Icyle Works, a homemade frozen confections company.

“The city closed the street without warning, I didn’t know about it” said Hunter.

“People are making decisions about Gaines Street who don’t live here” said Devon Pyles, owner of the Sick Boy Vintage clothing store.

Pyles explained that the construction on Gaines has made it “almost impossible to stay afloat” because it has hindered traffic on the street, making it more difficult for customers to get to her store.

“We’re seeing a real uptick in development interest for the Gaines street area” said Roxanne Manning, Program Director for the Community Redevelopment Agency. “It will be an inconvenience during construction, but after it is done, I think these independent retailers will be very happy and our goal is for these retailers to prosper.”

According to Manning, the project has been in the works for at least ten years, and complete commercial development of Gaines may not be completed until five or ten years from now. The 18-month project will be completed in two phases, but the determining factors in when construction will be completed are the economy and developer enthusiasm.

City bureaucracy has also been blamed by some as a factor in diminishing his business.

“I’ve planned to set up several carts in various locations around the city, one, by Lake Ella, was just approved after waiting for three years. Most of the people I know don’t think they can depend on the city” said Hunter.

George also mentioned that efforts to get the city to put in a turn lane going west on Tennessee Street and leading into the parking lot behind Sunberry, Gumby’s Pizza and several other businesses were unsuccessful, due to city restrictions and concerns about the width of the lanes and their proximity to the intersection.

When asked why he feels places like the Pizza Loop might have failed, Hunter responded, “I think they might have had different business models, they might have extended themselves too far.”

Despite some of these issues, Pyles wants people to know that although it might be harder to get to, her shop is still open and eager for business. “We love Tally, there is a lot of diversity here and a very big sense of community,” said Pyles. “We want people to know that we are open and accessible.”

When asked what advice he would give prospective business owners in the city of Tallahassee, George said, “Find the right location and sell the right product.”

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