By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
The recent closure of several longtime locally owned businesses leaves city leaders with the tall task of counteracting a slowdown in sales and consumer economic activity.
In the past few months, Bradlee Shoe Repair, Monroe’s, Mancini’s, Hannelore’s of Olde Town, Decorium and Why Not? all announced their closure. Old Town Coffee, Tea and Spice announced it would leave its current location, but owner Frank Poland said he is exploring a possible new space.
For some of the owners, retirement beckons. Others say they are seeking to move on to new opportunities. Some cite the rise in rents and online shopping as reasons for closing their doors.
Data prepared by city staff for the Old Town Area Parking Study work group and obtained by the Alexandria Times paints an overall gloomy economic picture, as gross sales receipts in Old Town decreased from fiscal years 2013 to 2014, even as the number of businesses remained steady. In fiscal 2014, 329 Old Town businesses tallied $293,656,781 in sales, whereas in fiscal 2013, the same number of businesses earned $310,609,016. It meant a
reduction by $16,952,235, or 5.5 percent.
“Clearly we want to do what we can to make sure those districts are strong and drawing customers, and we’re going to look at everything,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “Some of it is also very macro. The way people are buying and doing shopping is very different than it used to be and is going to continue to change. Our retail districts and our retailers are going to have to continue to evolve.”
Although several of the local store closures are recent occurrences, the discussion over how best to cultivate small businesses has been brewing for some time.
In 2014, a city-commissioned task force released recommendations on ways to improve the city’s business climate, from streamlining regulations and providing a more collaborative atmosphere for interactions between city officials and business owners to phasing in a reduction in the city’s business, professional and occupational license tax rates.
In the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 legislative agenda, the group, which represents the local business community, advocated for the implementation of the business tax reform task force’s recommendations. And candidates on both sides of the aisle argued in favor of streamlined regulations and potential tax breaks for businesses during last year’s city council election campaign.
Bridal store Hannelore’s at 106 N. Lee St. announced owner Hannelore Karpinksi would retire after more than 30 years in the industry, while a similar story sealed the fate for Del Ray eateries Monroe’s and Mancini’s. Mark and Laura Abraham shuttered Monroe’s on Christmas Eve, while Barbara Mancini closed Mancini’s in early October. A new restaurant, under new ownership, will open at the Mancini’s site. It will be called Junction Bakery and Bistro.
Former Mayor Bill Euille said Mancini’s served as a superb meeting place for many years, not only to meet with fellow elected officials and business leaders, but also members of the community.
“Mancini’s was the place either for breakfast or lunch,” Euille said. “It was not uncommon for me to be in there meeting with someone and then another city councilor would come in and meet with someone, a school board member would come in, it would just keep going from there.”
Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said planning for retirement and having a succession plan in place is key.
“A lot of the businesses in this wave that are closing are people who are retiring, and they don’t have somebody to pass the business down to,” Landrum said. “That could be an area where potentially we could start talking to some other retailers about how they do succession planning.”
Also shuttering due to retirement is Bradlee Shoe Repair, a fixture of the Bradlee Shopping Center since 1988 owned for many years by Joe Johnson. Vicki Forness, owner of nearby B&C Jewelers, said the departure is huge.
“He knew everybody’s stuff even though half the time he didn’t have a ticket or we didn’t have a ticket,” Forness said. “He just knew your stuff. I guess [it was] just experience. I guess he connected the shoe to the person and size or whatever. It was amazing; he just had that knack.”
For Kate Schlabach, owner of toy and children’s clothing store Why Not?, closure comes after more than 50 years at 200 King St. Schlabach said that the competition against online retail has become too difficult.
“I’m not going to fight online anymore,” Schlabach said. “The last 10 years, the business has gone down each year. I think it’s a crying shame. I don’t think people get what they’re doing to independent businesses with all the online ordering.”
Bill Reagan, director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, a nonprofit devoted to helping local small businesses get started and grow, said businesses in the city must adapt to the crowded marketplace, which includes both online and brick-and-mortar retailers, and focus on what makes their stores unique to customers. Reagan added that the SBDC has several programs to help retailers stay competitive, and that location is a big selling point when it comes to the overall retail experience.
“[Online shopping] does not need to be the death knell for businesses; they can provide additional benefits to the customers,” he said. “Whereas shopping online may be something that’s convenient and easy to do from their homes, people like to get out and touch and they like the service and the response from the owner. They need to understand what’s the value, what are people looking for in the products or the services they’re buying online and offer better value when people actually come in and better service.”
Also causing problems for some businesses has been the rising cost of rent, especially for Old Town Coffee, Tea and Spice at 215 S. Union St. With waterfront redevelopment underway nearby, Poland said his landlord is asking for too much each month.
“I can’t make the business work with the rent that the landlord wants,” Poland said. “He thinks that he’s undervaluing the property, I guess, and he sees the new hotel going in across the street and thinks that’s going to make this place more valuable. I don’t see it that way. This is not a restaurant operation, and the hotel is not going to be caring one way or the other about this place.”
Wilson said that while the city cannot interfere directly with rising rents, they are using what tools they can to help small businesses. He cited the Oakville Triangle small area plan’s provision for so-called “maker spaces” as one way to preserve small businesses in the city. Both Wilson and Landrum described increasing rents as a “double-edged sword,” as it means that the city is becoming more attractive for business owners.
“There’s always a challenge about how you want to intervene in those relationships,” Wilson said. “We’re always looking at different ways that we can, not with a heavy hand, but at least [influence] the marketplace. It has an impact on us, because if we lose all the retailers in our central business districts, it doesn’t matter how successful the restaurants are, you want retailers to balance. It’s always a challenge for us.”