Port Royal works to revitalize Paris Avenue

January 2, 2010 

Port Royal's downtown stores are among many small businesses that are currently struggling. Port Royal Town Manager Van Willis said the problem is likely two-fold — the economy and the fact that the port of Port Royal remains unsold and undeveloped.

JONATHAN DYER/THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

During the last year, Port Royal has seen businesses along Paris Avenue dwindle, festivals turn out less than spectacular numbers and the port of Port Royal, with its prime waterfront real estate, sit stagnant, officials said.

Some say its sleepy downtown village is stuck in a rut, but no one has yet discovered a solution to wake the historic corridor up.

"Everything feels a little stale," said Old Towne Coffee Haus owner Chris Rentz. "We need somebody to come who has a vision to put some life back (into the village)."

While many small town businesses are hurting these days, Port Royal's Paris Avenue has had particular difficulty finding its footing.

Town Manager Van Willis said the problem is likely two-fold -- the economy and the fact that the port of Port Royal has yet to sell and develop.

Others think there's a fundamental dichotomy standing in the way of new business promotion.

"People stand there and say they don't want anymore growth or density, and then they say they want more retail," said Carlotta Ungaro, executive director of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. "With the mom and pop stores, if you don't have a critical mass, it's hard to be successful."

Residents and other business owners have expressed a desire for more stores and community events, but when "an idea is brought up, it really doesn't go anywhere very quickly," Rentz said.

The problems began some time ago. A slew of businesses left Paris Avenue in 2007; 2008 wasn't much better, Rentz and Old Village Association chairman Jeff Barnes said.

Many of the startups from four or five years ago that later folded or moved on "may have been speculating that the port property was closer to a sale and development" than it turned out to be, Willis said.

In 2009, popular stores and restaurants, like McPherson's Serious Bar-B-Que and Bateaux Restaurant, closed on Paris Avenue, while professional services -- architectural and engineering firms, law offices and assisted care centers -- continued finding some success, Ungaro said.

Those types of businesses supply high-quality jobs but don't attract the same kind of patrons looking to take a leisurely stroll down the street, stop in the stores, have lunch or grab a cup of coffee, Rentz said.

Advertising seems to be the go-to promotional tool, along with some other town beautification projects, officials said. Port Royal partnered with the town's Old Village Association to advertise in regional and military publications. The Chamber also recently launched a new branding study and campaign that will promote all of Northern Beaufort County, including Port Royal.

"That whole branding effort is an attempt to focus on the type of tourists and businesses we should be attracting," Willis said.

The village association and Chamber are working on a new walking trail map to guide visitors through historic spots in Beaufort and Port Royal. Right now, Rentz said, those spots go unnoticed by the majority of visitors who may be unaware of attractions like The Sands or the area's historic homes.

Port Royal hasn't raised its business license rate since 1993, Willis said. However, the town isn't currently offering incentives for new businesses to choose it over other municipalities, he said.

Something must be done, and soon, said Town Council member Joe Lee. Port Royal could recruit new businesses through the chamber, the Lowcountry Economic Network and business owners, he said. When the town starts its budget planning in February and March, business promotion should be in the mix, he said.

Any financial incentives must be carefully thought out because the town shouldn't use public money to promote a specific sector or compete with existing businesses, he said.

"Before we spend too much more money on trying to attract more people here, we have to figure out how to get more businesses here," Lee said.

The city of Beaufort has Main Street Beaufort, USA for downtown promotion. Port Royal could look at establishing a similar community development program, Better Hometown, designed for towns with smaller populations, Ungaro said.

"There's definitely an impetus to put something together," Lee said. "Everybody recognizes that there's a problem, but hopefully people also see that there's opportunity."

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