Your View: Old Town retail is facing a troubling period

Your View: Old Town retail is facing a troubling period

By Jody Manor, Owner, Bittersweet (Photo/Chris Teale)

To the editor:
Curzon Antiques, Urban Angler, Ladyburg Bath and Body Boutique, Yogi Castle, Hannelore’s, Imperfections!, J Brown, Le Star, Cove Office, Pure Prana, Why Not?, Old Town Tea and Spice, European Country Living, Decorium, Trojan Antiques, Candy’s Candy, The Virginia Shop and now my very own Bittersweet.

Take a look at the list of businesses along and near our Main Street — King Street — that have recently closed or announced their closing. These were taxpaying businesses with customers, employees, landlords and important parts of the fabric of our city — and a reason to visit our city. Their owners were also contributors to an enormous number of local charities. Their collective sudden loss should be a wake-up call.

While there are many reasons for this spate of business closings, one cannot deny the changing nature of retail. With 17 blocks of retail space from the waterfront to the King Street Metro station, we are challenged, and if we are to preserve the economic vibrancy of our historic core, it is time to examine what the city can do to reverse this trend.

As a longtime local business owner, I can tell you that our regional reputation as a difficult place to do business is well deserved. An arduous, lengthy and often arbitrary approval process, which is not well known or well explained to new businesses, high license and permit fees, numerous taxes, regulatory minutiae, business unfriendly parking policies and an inadequate wayfinding program are at the heart of this. These anti-business practices clearly
undermine our competitiveness when trying to attract new businesses. Our leaders need to examine and address these issues.

In this day and age of increased competition from online sales, we can no longer rest on our laurels as a historic colonial city that the world’s largest online bookseller deems the United States’ most romantic. We must take a hard look at place-making, beautification and better maintenance of our streetscape.

We need to employ better coordination and deployment of historic resources between city departments, increased programming and utilization of our parks and public spaces, and examine our very restrictive special events policies. Our waterfront plan needs to be fully implemented without further delay.

As part of that, the Torpedo Factory Art Center should be refreshed so that it appeals to local families and millennials as well as visitors — and begins generating tax revenue for the city rather than being subsidized by the taxpayer.

Yes, if we want our retail core to survive, we need to attract more people here — people who want to shop, dine, attend events and put tax revenue in our city’s coffers while keeping our locally owned businesses in operation.

At a time when there are so many demands of our municipal budget, including the long overdue overhaul of City Hall, it’s time to start thinking about how to create a dynamic economy for the modern world while retaining our colonial charm.

Besides running a business in the heart of Old Town for the past 33 years, my prism is my recollection as a young boy of the many empty retail spaces along King Street in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking this cannot happen again.