Hotel, tour ships spell hope for shop owners
Last in a series of articles examining erosion of the downtown core. Previous stories examined the role of government in revitalization, renewal strategies that worked in other communities, and reasons businesses are choosing to invest away from downtown.
The impending development of the 50-room Aspen Hotel, construction on the mixed-use Veterans Village and an increase in cruise ship visitation in 2015 are giving downtown business owners some reasons for hope.
Plans to spruce up the green space at Third and Main, creation of a Haines Borough community and economic development director position and a resurrection of the Downtown Revitalization Committee also are heartening, but the specter of declining sales and vacant buildings is daunting, they said in interviews this week.
Tom Heywood, co-owner of the Babbling Book since 1998, pointed out that even as prominent buildings have been shuttered, Main Street business owners have worked to improve their own spaces.
“It’s important to talk about some of the good things down there. You look at the art on Main Street in the Howsers windows. There are a lot of buildings that have been improved. Olerud’s looks great, Haisler’s has been painted,” he said.
His bookstore window is routinely decorated with elaborate displays, including a hodgepodge of green merchandise in honor of St. Patrick’s Day and a spindly, egg-laden tree for Easter.
As a downtown business owner, Heywood said he would like to see banners like ones currently up along Second Avenue and Front Street. He’d also like to see the Chamber of Commerce restore its Shop at Home campaign to remind residents that shopping in Juneau doesn’t pencil out.
Though he recently cut bookstore hours by closing on Tuesdays, Heywood said he is proud of Main Street businesses that stay open year-round. “We don’t have a very thriving business in the winter, but we don’t want to be a seasonal business. We feel it’s important to be here for the community.”
Buckshot and Bobby Pins owner Kristine Harder, also known for her window displays, is in a similar boat. Harder recently considered moving her store to Skagway and making it a seasonal shop, with a high rent but also a high volume of customers.
“I make such a small percentage of my income during the winter months, I’d like to be closed so I could regroup and get caught up on paperwork, but I can’t do that,” Harder said. “I don’t feel okay about closing for the winter. I would be a huge hypocrite if I were to do that.”
Harder is encouraged by Royal Caribbean Cruises returning to Haines in 2015, and thinks the borough’s investment in a community and economic development director could bring growth, if it’s done right.
“I very, very much support that position being created. I think it’s probably the most important way we could spend our money in this town,” she said.
The borough assembly will decide on creating the position as part of its fiscal year 2015 budget.
Harder said she would like to see more housing downtown, as well as signage directing motorists through Main Street. When she opened up the store in November 2010, Harder hadn’t realized that while Main Street was technically “the place to be” for businesses, there wasn’t any way for people getting off the ferry to know Main Street’s location.
“What I didn’t stop to think about was the many times I myself had driven in and out of Haines for the past 20 years and never even went down Main Street,” Harder said. “The signage for a person coming off the ferry makes it very easy to bypass Main Street.”
Rod Hinson, owner of Alaska Rod’s, sees plenty of room for improvement downtown and said he gets irritated with the negativity surrounding talks of revitalization.
“We’re doing really well in our store,” Hinson said. “Every year we’ve done better and better. It’s not all doom and gloom.”
Hinson, whose store has been open nearly four years, attributes failing downtown businesses largely to the owners themselves. “We’re slow in the wintertime, but we’re still here. But there are people who aren’t open in the middle of the summer,” Hinson said. “They bring it on themselves by not having their store open and not being open during hours that accommodate people.”
Hinson recalled one night his store didn’t close the door until 11:15 p.m. because customers kept coming and going. “We have that weird philosophy that if there is somebody in the store, you don’t lock the door,” he said.
Though he’s encouraged by the Aspen Hotel and hopes the hotel’s meeting room will attract conferences, Hinson isn’t thrilled about development of a green space on Third and Main or potential resurrection of the Music on Main Street summer series.
“I don’t think it would be a draw to the businesses. I don’t think it would help a whole lot,” Hinson said.
Of the Music on Main Street series, which put bands downtown during cruise ship days, Hinson said “it was pretty pathetic… We had people coming in the store who were making non-complimentary remarks about it.”
Instead, Hinson said he’d like the borough to help local businesses. “The borough needs to be more business-friendly and give people incentives to do things. It would be nice to have a tax-free day every now and then for people, like before a holiday or something,” Hinson said.
“It’s not that big a deal, but maybe it keeps people shopping here instead of maybe doing it online,” he added.
Material Girls owner Rhona Nelson isn’t as optimistic as Hinson. Nelson bought the fabric business from Charlotte Olerud seven years ago.
“I knew I wanted to stay on Main Street, because, myself, when I shop, I like close stops,” Nelson said. “People will put things off when it’s not comfortable and not convenient.”
Until last winter, business was pretty steady, Nelson said. Then sales dropped off. “I’m trying to stay in business, but it’s hard. It’s really hard,” she said.
Nelson cut her hours, and started having sales to promote business. She kept her prices low.
“The more people I talk to in town, so many more people are going down to Juneau to buy because of prices, because of Costco,” Nelson said. “And you know when they are down there they are going to buy fabric and yarn.”
“I don’t think they really understand it,” Nelson said of residents remaining oblivious to the effects of shopping out of town.
Nelson puts a lot of her dwindling hope in the cruise ships, and bringing more people to town somehow. Otherwise, she doesn’t really have an answer for how to revitalize downtown.
“In my heart I want to be optimistic, but I’m not,” Nelson said. “I’m afraid of this coming winter.”