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Business owners growing ‘desperate’

Downtown Poulsbo has several vacancies in the district. Planners are mulling traffic ideas for the core to increase access. -
Downtown Poulsbo has several vacancies in the district. Planners are mulling traffic ideas for the core to increase access.
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POULSBO — Typically an upcoming holiday finds eager shoppers with their noses pressed against gift store windows, ready to spend as soon as that neon ‘open’ sign glows.

But in downtown Poulsbo, merchants are noticing something different. Customers, more often than not, are few and far between. Less have flocked with appetites whetted to trade in their green, leaving many business owners in Poulsbo’s core crossing their fingers when rent comes due. For some, the numbers simply aren’t adding up.

“Here, it’s December and the streets are dead,” said Peggy Fiorini, owner of boutique Raven Blues. “Where is everybody?”

Fiorini is two months behind on her commercial rent, and has made the decision to split her store space to cut costs.

“The one thing that’s hurt a lot of us is that it’s discretionary, what we have, it’s not necessary,” Fiorini explained. Until recently, she didn’t believe the presence of big box stores in Poulsbo would affect downtown business owners.

“When people come into my store, we can spend 10-15 minutes with a customer,” she said. “You’re just a number anywhere else.”

But the added service and one-of-a-kind artistic wares aren’t pulling in as many shoppers as they used to. And the stigma that downtown is exclusively expensive doesn’t help, she said, adding Raven Blues markets rare items along with inexpensive pieces like jewelry and bookmarks.

“I’m desperate,” said Fiorini. “I don’t want people out there to think that downtown is thriving when they’re not.”

A handful of downtown storefronts are darkened and several are reportedly for sale, while others have hunkered down until spring and summer bring back the crowds.

“You can definitely tell that Christmas shopping is going on, but it’s definitely down from last year,” said Good Scents Bath & Body owner Brie Feldbau, who has run her shop near the bottom of Hostmark Street for two-and-a-half years. “I knew coming into this that the economy wasn’t perfect and obviously I didn’t foresee it getting this bad. It’s already hard for people that have been down here for 30 years, and it’s definitely hard for people who’ve been down here only two years.”

Feldbau’s family has been in business on Front Street since the mid-1980s, so she said she’s well-accustomed to the area’s normal business buzz. This year, she said, a major hurdle small business owners face are those extra discounts big box competitors can offer, beating out independent stores during a time when, for some, pricing is the bottom line.

“That’s really impacting us,” Feldbau said. Though weekday sales aren’t suffering too badly, weekend sales have dipped enough Feldbau has put her shop on the selling block.

“I can’t make it,” she explained.

Reports are similar from the other end of Poulsbo’s historic corridor. Stationed at the intersection of Front Street and Jensen Way, Higher Groundz Espresso owner Ben Rogers said his business intake has been cut in half since the summertime, despite a strong core of regular customers.

“It just completely fell off the table in about October,” said Rogers.

During the summer Rogers experienced $120-200 days, but that quickly dropped to $40-50 days as the seasons shifted. Recently, he took in just $27 of revenue in a day.

“This is becoming more and more of a tourist town,” contended Rogers. “In the off season it becomes a ghost town.”

Rogers, who operates his business six days a week, 12 hours a day and employs no others, said Higher Groundz offers delivery services, advertises and is easily accessible — to little avail. Whether it’s the lack of tourists, the downtrodden economy or something else, Rogers has his family, including a 3-year-old child and expectant wife, to keep in mind.

“It’s hard to put a finger on the exact issue. It kind of befuddles me to tell you the truth,” he admitted. “This is the happiest job I’ve ever had in my life. … Worse comes to worse, I’ll have to shut down.”

Bookstop owner Soon Hood said the foot traffic decrease her store has experienced has only been mitigated by the sales of specialty items, which have kept her dollar amount in line with last year’s precedent.

She has, however, cut back on staff, and is taking in fewer consignment books.

Many of her regulars, she’s noticed, have used store credit to purchase Christmas gifts.

But as a second-hand book shop, Hood said there has yet to be an economically spun gravitation in her direction.

For employees, this time of year has proven just as difficult.

Teresa Merrill of Hansville, who worked at Magnolia Café before it closed down last Sunday, said her job search has so far unearthed no options, and she remains unemployed.

“I’m finding it tougher than I thought because nobody’s hiring,” Merrill said. “It’s the slow time of year.”

Some downtown merchants have additional concern at proposed traffic changes to the downtown core, which are designed to reroute drivers to State Route 305. The changes were postponed by Poulsbo’s City Council this week after several store owners and citizens voiced their worries and presented a petition containing more than 30 signatures.

Woodfired Pizza House owner Chuck Wheeler said the proposed changes, which include 11 new all-way stops at various intersections and later may mean making Front Street a one-way, could send a silver bullet into his operation.

“That would definitely impact my potential for new customers, as well as detract people from just going through and saying ‘oh yeah, let’s stop in for a pizza,’” he said. “We have a nice downtown, people should be able to drive through it.”

Feldbau, however, said she is in favor of the additional traffic controllers, also designed to make downtown a more pedestrian-friendly place.

“I’m at the perfect spot, right at the bottom of the hill on Front Street,” she said. “All day long I hear screeching tires of people going too fast down the hill and someone’s in the middle of the crosswalk and they have to slam on their breaks not to hit them.”

Most drivers passing through town, she suspects, aren’t looking in store windows anyway.

“Most of the traffic that comes through here are people just trying to bypass other traffic. I don’t believe those are our customers,” she said.

And like many, she’s had more than one close call crossing the street.

“I’m hoping that people will do more shopping downtown and support their local economy,” said Poulsbo City Council Member Kimberlee Crowder. “Business everywhere is having a hard time, but if we support each other and utilize each other’s local businesses when we can, that’s certainly going to help.”

Before Wednesday night’s decision to put the traffic changes on hold, Crowder said she felt secure that should they be implemented, they can just as easily— and inexpensively — be removed if they prove to have a negative effect.

“Our intention with downtown is always to bring more business,” Crowder said.

There are other elements changing the nature of walk-in retail, including the ever-increasing number of online buyers.

Post-Thanksgiving Black Friday numbers were down nationwide, while the following Cyber Monday turnout hit record highs, according to Historic Downtown Poulsbo Association President Tammy Mattson.

“Everyone has had a whole different turn on Christmas this year,” said Mattson, also a downtown business owner. “There’s a lot less gift buying and splurging and expenditures.”

Poulsbo Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Adele Heinrich said the tough Christmas season most likely won’t be the end of slow shopping.

“It’s going to be tough, 2009 is going to be tough. Let’s face it,” she said. This week the chamber offered an evening ‘recession survival’ seminar for merchants who can’t attend chamber events during regular business hours. Many are putting in more time in their shops than usual; some have extended store hours.

The chamber also is putting together a coalition marketing effort, working with the city to advertise Poulsbo as a whole and provide affordable sponsorship opportunities packed with branding power.

But it seems there is no instant fix, no single-stroke economic deus ex machina to turn business woes around.

“We’re trying to be optimistic. I think that’s the only thing we can do at this point for 2009, is to be carefully optimistic. We just have to be optimistic to the point where we’re realistic,” said Heinrich.

And business owners can take leaps in the right direction.

Liberty Bay Books owner Suzanne Droppert is making an effort to spread the IndieBound cause, an independent store promotion that began for book sellers and is now spreading to all sorts of businesses in a campaign to encourage local buying.

She’s also working on making reusable Poulsbo-themed shopping bags for all downtown merchants to offer, and is using sales of her own eco-friendly bags to help support area nonprofits.

“We don’t have a bail out,” Droppert said of downtown merchants. But community support goes a long way. “If you shop in another town those sales tax dollars support another school district. If you shop in a North Kitsap store, those tax dollars support your school district.”

According to www.indiebound.org, $68 of every $100 spent at a local shop stays within a community, while only $43 of every $100 spent at a national chain remains in an area.

Droppert is also brainstorming “out-of-the-box” event ideas to bring people into Poulsbo’s core.

Mattson voiced similar sentiments, saying retailers offer a standing invitation to locals to come downtown and enjoy themselves, and are trying to incorporate new, fun activities to encourage that most important foot traffic.

“I’m always an optimist. I firmly stand on ‘this too shall pass,’” Mattson said. “When it will pass is the big question.”

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