Monday, February 13, 2006

Where have the shoppers gone?

Officials work to help downtown Blacksburg, Va., soon to have 15 vacant storefronts, rebound.

By Angela Manese-Lee
The Roanoke Times

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Along downtown streets, storefronts that once sold pitas and subs are now plastered with the advertisements of new enterprise.

The ads call attention to coming events and away from the vacant shops they're attached to.

But behind the fliers, a worrying story is developing.

It is one in which high rents, community misperceptions, reduced student traffic and rundown buildings compound and result in failed or relocated businesses.

In downtown Blacksburg, where at least 12 stores sit vacant and three others sit poised for departure, the story is calling for attention.

Just ask Blacksburg Mayor Roger Hedgepeth, who avoids taking visitors on tours through his city's core -- streets that were once signature addresses in a bustling college community.

"I try not to show them downtown," he admitted.

It's a far cry from the bustle of old, when many of the 20,000-some students at Virginia Tech could be found scurrying in and out of bars, restaurants and retailers.

"I hope it'll change, but right now it would not attract a lot of attention without a great deal of explanation," the mayor said.

Like downtowns across the country, Blacksburg's has been declining for years -- since the late 1980s, when New River Valley Mall opened six miles away, allowing Christiansburg to develop into the retail hub of the New River Valley.

Still, the recent rash of high-visibility closings has grabbed the attention of local leaders who are looking for ways to fight back.

Answering the call
In recent weeks, the Downtown Merchants of Blacksburg group has met with the Blacksburg Partnership. Suggestions for business training courses, round-table discussions and a shop-local campaign have surfaced.

After all, it's hard to ignore that Extreme Pita, Touchdown Subs, Emilio's, Jackson Street Cafe, the Record Exchange and Mirror Image sit with doors closed.

FedEx Kinko's is moving out, as is Runabout Sports. And in a few months, Crossroads CDs will vacate the anchor building it's occupied for eight years.

"Before the malls came, before that, right there in downtown we had men's and women's stores, record stores, three drugstores, three hardware stores, a furniture store, general stores, two or three jewelry stores and a dime store," Hedgepeth said

The retail mix and few on-campus offerings meant traffic -- particularly student traffic -- was steady throughout the 1970s and '80s.

By the 1990s, however, traffic had slowed and now, Hedgepeth said, there are few stores along Main Street or College Avenue that he frequents.

In the meantime, Blacksburg's retail areas continue to expand.

Clay Court, a mixed-use retail/residential center on the edge of downtown, is nearing completion.

Across the street, the 2-year-old Kent Square shopping plaza remains far from full -- and its parking garage has not met financial expectations, a further drag on a town that contributed $2 million to the project.

'They're not shopping'

Explaining the vacancies is difficult, town and business leaders say, because while some can be attributed to the difficulty of starting a new business, others involve a variety of hard-to-measure factors.

"I think people love the idea of a cute downtown with lots of great shops, but they're not shopping," said Downtown Merchants Executive Director Gwynn Hamilton. "We need more people to understand the impact of their shopping choices."

Since the late 1980s, Blacksburg merchants have watched as nearby Christiansburg developed into the retail hub of the New River Valley, attracting a number of national chain stores and eateries, and with them, buyers looking for good deals and brand names.

"After the mall opened, that's when you started to see more of the major retailers, the big-box stores, and once that happened, it kind of centralized that retail and pulled some of the commercial business from towns, including Blacksburg," said Blacksburg Town Manager Marc Verniel.

In 1989, just a year after the New River Valley Mall opened, business license fees collected in Blacksburg grew by only $29. The year before the fees had grown by $37,383.

Seventeen years later, Blacksburg businesses are still feeling the pinch of regional competition.

"People do go there, absolutely," Champs Sportsbar & Cafe owner Mike Soriano said of Christiansburg. "It comes down to perception. A lot of people think they can go out there and not be overrun by students, and another part of that is the big-box stores: People will do their retail shopping there and eat at the restaurants near there."

Christiansburg, however, is not just attracting residents looking to avoid students. It's also attracting students.

Students shop elsewhere
Virginia Tech sophomore Tia Hardnett said she'll pop into downtown women's wear retailer Mad Dog every now and then, but generally finds her options along Main Street pretty limited.

"I do most of my shopping in Christiansburg," Hardnett said. "They have Wal-Mart and Target, so it's good for bargain shopping."

A bargain might also be pulling businesses to Christiansburg.

Milton Rose, a commercial real estate salesman with Century 21--Jim Owens, said space in Christiansburg typically rents for $10 to $15 a square foot.

Space in Blacksburg goes for $15 to $20 a square foot, Rose said.

It's not clear if rent played a role in FedEx Kinko's decision, but in October the office print services store said it would move out of its current location on College Avenue and into a new development at the intersection of Virginia 114 and U.S. 460.

"There are nine businesses here, and you'll have four left once Kinko's and Crossroads leave," Soriano said, pointing to both empty and occupied storefronts on College Avenue between Draper Road and North Main Street.

In this stretch of downtown, building maintenance and rising rents are the primary concerns, said Soriano, who heads the Blacksburg Restaurant Association, chairs the Blacksburg Partnership's retail advisory committee and is a member of the Downtown Merchants.

But restaurants here also have to contend with Virginia Tech's on-campus offerings.

Since the mid-90s, Tech students, faculty members and visitors have been able to dine at chains such as Burger King, Au Bon Pain and Pizza Hut without having to cross College Avenue.

And the school's dining centers dish out everything from lobster and steak to fresh salads and barbecue.

The quality of the choices -- plus the fact that Tech doesn't charge a meal tax at the franchises it owns -- can't help but pull people from downtown restaurants, Soriano said.

Plus, like those in other college towns, businesses in downtown Blacksburg have to deal with months-long student breaks and local residents who believe that section of town is overrun by the 26,000 students who attend class next door.

"At 10:30, 11 p.m., downtown is definitely full of students, but it's not that way in the middle of the day," Soriano said. "We really have to get local residents out here having lunch, dinner and shopping."

Stores look elsewhere
The Record Exchange, a Blacksburg institution for more than 20 years, closed its store at 302-A N. Main St. two weeks ago.

Owner Don Rosenberg has eight remaining stores in Virginia and North Carolina, and said business at the Blacksburg store had trailed behind that of other stores for three to four years.

Unlike the others, the Blacksburg location relied heavily on students, who more and more frequently are burning -- not buying -- CDs.

James DeMarco has owned Runabout Sports, a soccer and running supply store, on North Main Street for almost three years and said, despite its downtown address, Runabout Sports gets relatively little walk-in traffic.

The store's entrance is at the back of the building and unless customers are looking for the shop, they often walk right past.

So, in order to target new customers and give Runabout room to expand, DeMarco is moving out of downtown.

"A lot of people don't come downtown to shop anymore," DeMarco said. "There's just not that much retail there anymore."

When he moves to a storefront in University Mall, there will be one fewer, but Runabout's space won't sit vacant for long.

DeMarco said University Sportwear, which sits in the front of the building and recently closed a Kent Square location, will expand to fill the back.

Developer Bill Ellenbogen, who is working with a partner to expand University Mall, said he hopes there are other businesses that see advantages to locating in the mall, but does not expect other downtown stores to follow Runabout's lead.

Like Runabout Sports, Crossroads CDs is also trading one Blacksburg location for another.

Owner David Fisher said the store will be moving into the Tech Village Center on Prices Fork Road by mid-March.

Crossroads' landlord, the Martinsville-based Lester Group, filed a lawsuit against the business Jan. 24, claiming Fisher owes more than $18,000 in unpaid rent and property taxes.

Fisher didn't dispute that Monday, and said his decision to withhold payments and his decision to relocate both have to do with the condition of the building.

Unlike Runabout, Crossroads has always enjoyed a steady flow of drop-in shoppers, particularly because of the store's proximity to the Tech campus and downtown restaurants and bars.

Even so, Fisher too has been affected by an increasing number of vacancies.

"To me, it's a great place to do business, but it does hurt when you have so much vacant," he said. "There's fewer reasons to come to that area. If you have more good tenants, you have a bigger draw for everybody."

Nick Johnson only feels the need to head downtown once a week.

Although the trip from class to College Avenue takes just a couple of minutes, the Virginia Tech freshman said there's relatively little for him and his friends to do there.

This week he got a haircut at Hokie Hair. Next week he might grab dinner.

"Other than that, I don't find myself down here that often," Johnson said.

Action now needed
For the past three months, merchants association director Hamilton has watched downtown with concern.

She's heard the complaints about building maintenance and high rents, and knows residents mistakenly believe there's nowhere nearby to park.

But it was when she heard about Crossroads that Hamilton realized action was needed.

"Once I heard that rumor, that's when the alarm bell went off that something must be done," she said.

With more and more of the association's members attending meetings, Hamilton began talks with representatives from the town and the Blacksburg Partnership, which includes representatives from the town, Virginia Tech and local businesses.

"I'm nervous but hopeful," she said of current discussions. "I think we've raised the attention of a few important players and I think there are a lot of people poised to take action."

About six months ago, the Blacksburg Partnership formed a retail advisory committee to focus on attracting and retaining businesses.

Thus far, the committee has talked about a local marketing campaign with a shopping map, postcards and television show. A "business of the month" program and series of forums also have been suggested.

And last spring, members of the partnership visited Athens, Ga., to see how that community succeeded in making its downtown thriving and vibrant.

There's also the hope that downtown might rebound on its own.

"The downtown section isn't glaringly empty, but it's clear that with all the building in recent years, there are just lots of opportunities for business owners," said 27-year resident and residential real estate agent Vicki Powell.

"The demand will catch up."

Sounding a similar note, town manager Verniel and Shane Adams, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said the vacancies could just be cyclical.

"A bit of turnover downtown is OK. There are some businesses that won't make it," Verniel said. "It's worrying to me if it becomes a long-term situation."

Help on the way
One of the most encouraging signs for downtown is the news that Kathleen Ryland, owner of For the Birds, has signed a long-term lease at 201 S. Main St., in one empty storefront across the street from Kent Square.

Currently located at 1702 S. Main St., the store sells lawn and garden novelties and items with a nature theme.

"We felt that our merchandise and our product lines would go well with the people that Blacksburg is trying to attract downtown," Ryland said.

"Also, we want to try and bring something new to downtown."

Ryland's hoping the new space will make the shop more visible and bring in the walk-in traffic she doesn't see now.

And, while she's seen the vacant storefronts nearby, Ryland isn't worried.

"I don't see those empty spaces as a concern because it's an opportunity for other retailers like myself to move in."

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