Jodi’s Journal: The ups and downs of downtown

By Jodi Schwan

It’s a good thing, I remind myself, every time I struggle to find a parking space downtown.

Our office is in the heart of Phillips Avenue, and I come and go all the time, so I am often on the prowl for an open parking meter.

And lately it has been far too easy to find one.

If I’m being honest, this has been the case for almost a year. It began with the horrific building collapse at 10th and Phillips, right at the start of the 2016 holiday season.

Some people stayed away for fear of detours because of closed roads.

More, I hate to say but am convinced, kept their distance from downtown because of fear that somehow, any renovated historic building could cave in spontaneously.

That’s not rational, obviously, but at least for a time the perception prompted some shoppers to not even walk in the door of a downtown building. And it left many retailers with a gaping hole in their holiday sales that some still are struggling to fill.

I’m going to be blunt because it needs to be said:

If downtown retailers do not have a solid holiday season, some of them are not going to be around a few months from now.

And some couldn’t even hang on that long. Last week, we announced Keller’s Green Grocery had closed after a little more than a year in business. Our office is above Keller’s in The Carpenter Building, and it was clear for a while the business was struggling. There were many factors behind it – starting with the fact that grocery itself is a difficult industry.

But as someone who heard for years about the “need” for another downtown grocery store, it was disappointing to see how few people regularly shopped there. I’m not convinced the downtown market is mature enough to actually support another standalone grocery store. So I’m even more glad it won’t be long before Lewis Drug opens and offers a new option for people to buy groceries along with other staple items.

Tom Keller took ownership of his grocery store’s closure when I talked to him about it.

“Right now, I feel like a failure and wish that I could have pivoted earlier and harder to find a way to make the store viable. That didn’t happen,” he said. “That’s my fault, and while I can take some solace in the fact that I learned a great deal, I am gutted by the loss. It can be easy to look at mistakes and second-guess many decisions that were made. I’m still at that stage. I hope my emotions evolve to the point where I remember only the joys.”

I don’t think timing helped him, either.

This has been a great fall for building momentum downtown. We’ve broken ground on The Cascade at Uptown and ceremonially at the rail yard. Just within the past two weeks, I’ve reported on plans for a boutique hotel in the former Great Western Bank headquarters and for a massive new hotel and parking ramp with room for multiple floors of more retail. People are moving into condominiums, office space is filling up, and restaurants are preparing to open.

Against this backdrop, though, comes a relatively sluggish retail environment, both in Sioux Falls and nationwide, and I think that also hits small, independent businesses hard.

To test my theory, I talked with several retailers throughout downtown. My sense is most are flat to down a little year-over-year. One had a record August followed by a down September. Another had a terrible August but a good September.

There are bright spots, though.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Jeff Danz, owner of Zandbroz Variety. “We’ve seen a little uptick, and we’ve been in a plateau for a number of years, so to see upward movement is nice. I credit it to new people in the neighborhood over the last couple years.”

I’m also downtown on weekends, and I see a lot of cars down here.

“Weekends downtown are crazy on Saturdays from the time we open to the time we close,” agreed Chelsea Tracy, owner of Chelsea’s Boutique. “And that’s great because people are coming down and spending a whole day. Our Saturdays are incredible. We do sometimes in a Saturday what we do all week.”

I also sometimes struggle to find a parking space on Sundays. So, retailers, if you haven’t tried Sunday hours yet, please consider it.

In contrast, my instinct says store traffic was down on many First Fridays this year. Kathryn Macziewski, owner of A League of Your Own, agreed. Last summer, she needed two employees working on First Friday and would come in herself to help, too. This year, she had one, who struggled to stay busy.

“The number of hotel stays was down, too, and in the summer we would see groups of women from Yankton and Mitchell and the surrounding areas. They’d come for a weekday and stay downtown all day and eat and shop, and we didn’t see that this summer. I go back and forth whether it’s related to ag or the economy,” she said.

The other day, she needed to chase down a recent customer to correct a payment issue. So she quickly popped in a variety of businesses along Phillips Avenue. Granted, this was late afternoon on a Tuesday, “but only one business had a person in it,” she said.

It all also underscores why we should be focused on bringing more hotels and attractions designed to entice visitors downtown — and the parking to support them. But as we celebrate the major projects ahead, let’s remember that what’s critically important is to support those businesses that already are here.

This holiday shopping season, leave the phone or computer behind and walk into a locally owned business. Talk to the owner. I promise whatever you buy is going to be more meaningful – on many levels. If it’s cold or snowing, put on a heavier coat, and come out anyway. We have people who have invested an awful lot of themselves into our downtown business community, and we need to show them it’s worth it.

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Jodi’s Journal: The ups and downs of downtown

A down holiday season in 2016 led to a year that wasn’t great for downtown retailers, so this holiday season is critical.

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