Ithaca, N.Y. — Three downtown Ithaca shops are going out of business — and at least two of their owners say the over-budget and delayed Commons construction project is to blame.
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Why I Shop Downtown
Natalie’s Boutique and The Potter’s Room say that declines in traffic are forcing them to shutter their doors. Bloom in Ithaca, a children’s clothing store, also recently closed.
That’s on top of the closures of the Subway on the Commons, the end of a short-lived tea shop, and the relocation of the Jabberwock head shop and the Art & Found clothing store to locations off of the Commons. Multiple other businesses in downtown Ithaca say they continue to hurt significantly after a very slow holiday season, though others say they are doing well and even thriving.
Declines in foot traffic hit over 60 percent of Commons businesses in 2014 both last year and last holiday shopping season, according to a Downtown Ithaca Alliance report obtained by The Voice this winter.
Across all respondents in the survey, 40 percent of businesses reported that revenue dropped in 2014 and 48 percent reported that foot traffic was down.
Some local businesses say the drop in traffic have created unsustainable revenue shortages.
“They kept saying that the construction was going to be done, was going to be done, was going to be done,” said Natalie Sweeney, owner of the soon-to-close Natalie’s Boutique.
Sweeney criticized the city on several fronts, in part for not doing enough to help downtown businesses and for the unexpected duration of the construction project.
She moved her business out of Collegetown into downtown Ithaca because she thought the retail environment would be better and the rent cheaper.
“I wouldn’t have come down here if I knew it had been like this,” Sweeney says.
Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, acknowledged the difficulties created by the construction and stressed that the DIA hates to see any business close.
“It’s hard to believe the construction didn’t have some effect” on the closures, Ferguson says.
Still, Ferguson noted that the overall vacancy rate for the area remains low — about 5 percent. The typical range in the vacancy rate is between 3 percent and 8 or 9 percent, according to Ferguson. (The DIA measures vacancy rate by square footage.)
“Every year, we have businesses that come and go,” Ferguson said. “This year is no different. Are there going to be one or two more than normal? Maybe. But we’re talking a couple, we’re not talking a dozen.”
“The bottom line: There is always turnover, and churn, in the downtown market place. And the key is, will these things refill afterwards?”
In addition, while some retail has been affected, both restaurant and service businesses located downtown Ithaca appear to be d0ing well.
Throughout 2014, for instance, 43 percent of Ithaca Commons restaurants saw higher sales than they did the year before. (Only 28 percent reported lower sales; 15 percent said there was no change.)
Similarly, “service” businesses — like an insurance company or bank — saw a small net increase in both sales revenue and foot traffic, according to the DIA report. (28 percent of these businesses said revenue was up; 42 percent said there was no change; and 13 percent reported declines.)
Pottery shop going out of business
Still, it’s hard to square Ferguson’s optimism for downtown Ithaca with the frustrations of business owners like Tomas Black, owner of The Potter’s Room.
“There is no retail. The problem with the Commons destruction project is that there’s no organization to it,” Black said.
Black said his pottery store will be going out of business on May 31. He said he’s taken loans to support the business in part under the expectation that the Commons would be finished by its initial completion dates.
Among Black’s other frustrations with the Commons construction project:
— That the city has scheduled “reopening” festivities for late August. Black says that this gives the impression that the Commons are currently closed for business.
“If it had been closed for business I would have liked to know before I opened a business,” he says.
— That the timeline suggested by city officials was dramatically off.
“I was convinced by renting companies and downtown Ithaca officials that this was a one-year project,” he says. “This is year 3: You guys really botched this one pretty hard.”
We called a handful of other Ithaca Commons businesses to see how they’re doing. From those other interviews:
— Gorgers Taco Shack
Traffic is really slow on the Ithaca Commons during the day, says Matthew Diamond of the Gorgers Taco Shack.
The taco shack is almost totally reliant on traffic from bars and nightlife, Diamond says.
— Casablanca pizza
Sales have plummeted by 30 percent at Casablanca pizza, according to owner Adil Griguihi.
“It’s very, very bad,” Griguihi says. Things have gotten so bad that the pizzeria has stopped paying rent in the last two months, according to Griguihi.
— Now You’re Cooking
“Everyone has taken a hit — big time,” says Jerry Martins of Now You’re Cooking, which is not closing.
“There’s just fewer people on the commons, like half the business.”
— Crows’ Nest Cafe
Business at the Crows’ Nest Cafe above Autumn Leaves is down about 45 percent, according to the cafe owner William MacDaniel.
“I’m basically hanging on by the skin of my teeth until it gets done, if it ever gets done,” MacDaniel said.
— Mansour Jewelers
The owner of Mansour Jewelers said he didn’t want to get specific and that he doesn’t blame the construction workers, who he says are doing their best.
But he said his business is suffering — he didn’t provide specific numbers — and traffic is “definitely down.” “Do you know of anybody who is up?”
— Sheldon Hill
The jewelry store Sheldon Hill on the Commons had its worst three months in six years in business this last winter, according to owner Stacey Payette.
WaffleFrolic says it continues to draw a steady number of diners, except for when the construction has made it physically impossible to get into the restaurant.
“We have a good enough following where it’s not affecting our business … except for when they make it impossible to get into the store.”