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Up and down in downtown business
The El Coral restaurant closed its doors for good on July 27 with a final performance by saxophonist Mark Lewis. Its closing is indicative of the rise and fall of businesses downtown.
Although performances by the musician have been a past draw for the restaurant, 50 fans attended the Friday evening show, the owners of the El Coral said other challenges have made it necessary to close the doors of the establishment.
Owners Sandra Diaz and Alex Agraz said that after five years in business a lack of customers driven in part by recent construction on Fourth Street were among many issues that led to El Coral’s closure.
“Fridays have been real busy with Mark,” Agraz said. “But there was not enough business the rest of the week for us to stay open.”
Diaz and Agraz are not alone. Other local businesses owners face challenges keeping their doors open too. City business statistics and stories from other business owners show that business might actually be on the rise downtown and many are hopeful about the future of the area.
Numbers from the City of Bremerton Tax and Licensing Division for the last five years indicate that new businesses are opening in greater numbers than older ones are closing downtown. So far this year, 29 businesses opened downtown and 19 closed. Numbers from prior years show the increase in business to be a trend with 48 businesses opened and 36 closed in 2011, 43 opened and 31 closed in 2010.
Numbers from 2009 are the only divergent statistics. That year, 48 businesses opened while 56 businesses closed their doors. The numbers reflect downtown businesses beginning at Warren Avenue below Sixth Street and moving east to the waterfront.
Elaine Jones, an advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center in Bremerton, said her experience in dealing with small businesses downtown mirrored the numbers supplied by the county, but many challenges remain for business owners.
“In downtown in general I can believe the statistics,” she said. “The problem is that people are not going downtown as much as businesses would like. When people think of shopping, they don’t think of downtown.”
Jones said city officials had made numerous attempts to draw business downtown. But she said small business owners would still like to see more traffic downtown.
“Certainly the new movie house is big piece of that,” she said. “That is one of the things that the city believes will draw foot traffic downtown, but time will tell.”
Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent said it is a challenge to bring larger businesses downtown. She said she is proud of the city’s efforts to bring larger businesses such as the Seefilm Bremerton Cinema, hotels and a conference center to the area but continues to see the need for larger retailers and continues to try to meet that need.
Lent said major retailers the city had approached wanted more foot traffic than the city can currently supply.
“We tried to get Trader Joe’s but we did not have enough people frequenting the downtown area,” Lent said. “They moved into Silverdale because it had the largest footprint. It is difficult to buck the formulas they use.”
Lent said the city continues to seek larger retailers such as Walgreens and a major book retailer downtown.
“We just haven’t had a positive response yet,” she said.
As the El Coral closed its doors another restaurant opened in sight of the establishment.
El Balcon opened in May, and owners Mario and Ofelia Amaya said they are hopeful for the future of their business and found officials of the city to be helpful in starting their establishment.
The restaurant began as a street vendor operation downtown in 2010 and has grown to a point where the owners have opened a storefront on Pacific Avenue.
The owners said they continue to receive enough customers and said some mornings there can be a line of patrons stretching outside the door.
“The turnout has been wonderful,” Mario Amaya said. “The city and our customers have treated us with nothing but love.”
Other downtown businesses continue to meet challenges while remaining open.
Collective Visions art gallery has been open since 1994 in two separate locations downtown.
The business is collaboration between 25 local artists who operate the business through an executive board. Board Secretary Mary McInnis said members have considered moving but feel the change would be detrimental to the business.
“Like everybody, we struggle,” McInnis said. “It has been suggested by some members of the co-op that we move, but we feel we are anchored to this spot. We have been here enough years to establish our presence, and moving would be like starting over.”
McInnis and other business owners said parking was among their biggest concerns downtown.
Lent said the city had made many efforts to supply adequate parking downtown. She said the recent addition of a downtown parking garage and changes in parking spaces has helped.
“My biggest concern about the lack of parking is that employees of businesses take up spaces,” she said. “We have offered special rates at our Fifth and Washington garage, but they continue to shuttle and they do not want to pay for parking.”
Sandy Corbit, owner of Flowers D’Amour, said the downtown business has been open for 17 years, and she has seen many changes in the area. She said business continues to be a struggle for multiple reasons.
“Downtown has definitely gotten prettier,” she said. “It is a much nicer place to be than it was, but there is still a lack of people downtown. I think the overall American economy has lowered our profits significantly, too. People are just not spending money right now.”
Diaz and Agraz said part of the reason for closing the El Coral was a recent increase in rent. Jones said multiple small business owners and those seeking to open a business in the area have said they find rent prices a deterrent for business.
“The people I talk to who think about locating downtown think rent is expensive for what they are getting,” Jones said.
Merv Killoran, Commercial Investment Manager at Reid Realty said, to his experience, prices of property for sale or lease downtown start around $7 a square foot and move upward. He said he found Bremerton to have reasonable rents and he continues to lease properties downtown.
“You can get cheap rent in downtown Bremerton,” he said “It just depends on what you are looking for.”
Killoran said newer construction will cost more than older spaces downtown, but he felt there were spaces for rent that could meet many needs downtown.
Ric Bearbower, Associate Commercial Broker at Reid Real Estate, said the city had done good work on improving downtown but other options might also be considered moving forward.
“I have been doing this for 37 years and I have sold a whole lot of properties down there,” he said. “What I’m finding is that there is just not enough after-hour traffic. What Bremerton needs is more apartments downtown. If you get residences down there, business will improve.”
Lent said the city continues to seek to revitalize the downtown area. She said recent construction also has hurt business but has been a necessity for improving the area.
“I can only apologize for the construction, and say the city is doing everything we can to bring customers and business into downtown to make up for that loss,” Lent said.