Lights remain out in many storefront locations in Flagstaff’s historic downtown district. “In one square block area between Leroux, Aspen, San Francisco and Route 66, there are about 10 vacancies. I’ve been in downtown for 20 years, and we’ve never had that many vacancies,” said David DeGraff, owner of Main Street Catering. DeGraff sold his downtown restaurant, Main Street Restaurant and Grill, in October and moved the kitchen to run his catering business out of the historic area.
Steve Beiser, owner at Puchteca Native American Art, agrees that it has been quite a while since there have been so many vacancies in the downtown area. “The last time this happened was after 9/11. I think it is worse now,” said Beiser. There are three empty storefronts on his block of San Francisco between Route 66 and Aspen Avenue. A fourth was filled recently by a national chain store. Earthbound Trading opened in the former Porter’s Jewelry location in January.
“The chains are taking over the town,” said DeGraff. “A large chain has many stores that can support a store that is not doing well. But, if a local [single] store loses money for three years in a row, they’re not going to be in business.”
“It used to be very difficult to get into these spots,” said Brian White of Everywear U. Inc. White is expanding his business into the adjacent retail space that was left empty months ago. “To tell you the truth, the reason that I am expanding is because I got sick of the ‘For Rent’ sign next door. Our sales have gone up since the ‘For Rent’ sign is gone.” The president of the boutique college wear shop testified that the snow before President’s Day weekend brought snow-play tourists into town, and that, too, increased business. “Saying that Snowbowl traffic doesn’t affect downtown is hogwash,” said White who has operated on Leroux Street for over 15 months. “Our sales were up 180 percent over last President’s Day weekend when there was no snow.”
The landlord didn’t cut the cost per square foot when White rented additional space. “We had to pay the going rate – but where else in Flagstaff can you get the traffic? You tell me and I’ll go there,” laughed White, an alumnus of Coconino High School and NAU.
Just across Leroux Street from Everywear U., two storefronts remain empty after Zani moved to the Southside and Selections closed its business. Elizabeth Bonzani of Zani Cards and Gifts revealed, “When we discontinued futons and downsized the business, we needed a smaller space. We were looking for a location that had better visibility, was easier to access and had better parking. On the Southside, we always have street-side parking and public parking lots. We’re on the bus route. We have customers now that say they didn’t even know we existed [before the move from Leroux].” When asked why she thought that there were so many vacancies north of the tracks, Bonzani exclaimed, “Because, first and foremost, the economy is terrible.”
“I fought the good fight for the first four years of this economic downturn,” said Colby Ramsey, who closed Black Bean Burrito in December. “Closing the business was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through… but in the end, I still feel like it was the right thing to do.
“Downtown has grown into a fine and beautiful thing, but the traffic has gone down,” said Ramsey, who also owns Bigfoot Bar-B-Q and the building on Route 66 where Black Bean resided for almost 15 years until low sales last summer put it down. “Typically, we put away during summer to tide us over for the winter slow months. … I didn’t feel like borrowing to make it through the winter.”
Across the plaza from Black Bean’s empty space, Jack Liu, owner of the new Aloha Hawaiian BBQ (formerly DeGraff’s Main Street Restaurant and Grill), remained positive. “Now is the slow season, but we have high hopes for the summer,” he said about the second location of this family-owned business. His first location continues to be a success in Prescott. “Customers will return, once they get here, they will bring back friends and family,” said Liu, who names his biggest concerns as foot traffic and parking.
Vacancies in downtown Flagstaff fit national trends. Michael Stumpf, a downtown revitalization expert, explained, “The recession did have an impact on overall vacancy, as well as profitability of businesses. Even many strong downtowns lost businesses, just the same as malls and strip centers. But the overall change in downtown vacancy has not been worse than these other locations.”
“From what we have seen, as well as survey research we conduct, I would generalize downtown markets as stable at the moment,” said Stumpf, principal of Place Dynamics, in an interview with Flagstaff Business News. “In downtowns where there has been some success in carving out a viable market niche, we are also seeing new tenants move into the vacated space within a relatively short span of time. This is partly a dynamic of most downtowns, where affordable space helps to attract start-up businesses.
“There are many benefits to locating in a downtown,” added Stumpf, who recently completed an analysis of another historical railroad downtown: Gallup, N.M. “One of the things we often hear is the value of being located close to other small businesses [that] may share needs or concerns. There is often a great deal of collaboration among these businesses to address issues impacting them all.
“Downtown can also offer some pretty unique space. Many younger and better-educated business owners and employees crave a space more interesting than a generic business park or strip center. Downtown fills the bill with its historic buildings, and often a collection of restaurants, coffee shops, and retailers who add an air of vitality you don’t get if all you have outside of your window is a parking lot,” continued Stumpf.
“It’s been said before, but it needs to be said frequently: locals need to be encouraged to support locally owned businesses,” said DeGraff. “Downtown foot traffic has to increase. People like going downtown, they can walk around the whole area, get something to eat and do some shopping – they can’t do that on Milton.” FBN
Aloha Hawaiian BBQ
16 E Route 66, #103, Flagstaff
Earthbound Trading Company
22 North San Francisco Street, Flagstaff
Everywear U. Inc.
22 N. Leroux Street, Flagstaff
Main Street Catering
Place Dynamics LLC
New Berlin, WI
Puchteca Native American Art
20 North San Francisco Street, Flagstaff