Downtown searches for ways to keep itself vibrant

September 11, 2010 

Every summer while vacationing on Fripp Island, Holly Tichenor of Spartanburg makes a special stop in downtown Beaufort to purchase a few new reads at the Bay Street Trading Co. bookstore.

In 2009, after visiting in July, Tichenor, even made a day trip the next month just to attend a book signing for Pat Conroy's "South of Broad" novel.

So she was unsettled when she heard the independent bookstore's run of more than 30 years will end when the store closes by the end of this month.

"Even though I typically only went once a year, I felt like they knew who I was, and it felt like coming home," Tichenor said. "It will be a great disappointment not to be able to go. ...It won't make me consider not going down there, but downtown will definitely lose something for me."

Mark it down as another gut punch to the downtown economy.

Just days after Bay Street Trading Co. made its announcement, another Bay Street establishment, Kathleen's Bar and Grille, shut its doors. Several other downtown business owners say they are forging on but hurting.


Beaufort's mayor says the city might have been shielded from the recession's full brunt because so many residents work for the government -- the city, the county, the military.

Perhaps now, Beaufort is beginning to "internalize the hurt" that's been coming since the economy soured, Billy Keyserling suggested. Although times are tough, there likely is more to the recent closings than that, Keyserling added.

Restaurants cycle in and out of downtown even during the best of times; owners burn out from the demands of running a small business; independent bookstores fall prey to the larger chains and the Internet, Keyserling said. Ultimately, the mayor added, succeeding means always staying competitive.

"I have nothing but sympathy for people who have to go out of business," he said Thursday. "But when we look at the big picture, it's by no means a sign that main street has gotten sour. ... Kathleen's went out of business, but Plums (Restaurant) recently made a huge capital investment to expand. There's definitely a cycle."

That cycle accentuates bigger issues, Keyserling said, among them the need for more diverse retail establishments that are as attractive to locals as they are to tourists. He notes the city's population hasn't grown in about 20 years, and the city has long sought ways to encourage people to live downtown, making it more than just a shopping district.

"What I hear from people in Beaufort is there's not enough variety," Keyserling said. "This just further demonstrates the importance of us growing our downtown, with more people living there and stores selling things people in Beaufort want."


Marilyn Sheehy, owner of the Southern Sweets ice cream shop and eatery in the Old Bay Marketplace, said she believes Bay Street still appeals to locals.

"Our business is definitely half tourists and half locals," said Sheehy, who added her sales are up from last year. "I'm optimistic. I think businesses will fill those vacant spots."

LaNelle Fabian, executive director of Main Street Beaufort, USA, said the nonprofit organization wants to work with the city's Redevelopment Commission and the Historic Beaufort Foundation to find new tenants for existing vacancies, plan downtown Beaufort's future and attract businesses that attract residents, not just shoppers.

She noted the old Lipsitz Department Store, which was closed and emptied in 2009 and hasn't been filled since. It could be left as one large space or divided into two or three smaller stores. Either path will require investment, Fabian said.

"Do we need to fix up some buildings and then go after the businesses, or go after the businesses and encourage them do the work?" she said. "We need a plan and money in place."

Main Street could seek grant money and likely will call on the commission -- which is funded by downtown parking revenue -- to reinvest in economic-development projects, Fabian said.

Ironically, some business owners have complained that the very parking system that fuels the Redevelopment Commission is part of the reason they are struggling. The new system, put in place in July, includes new electronic pay stations, higher hourly rates and fees, and more consistent enforcement.

"Every day I hear about those meters," said Smart Girls Consignment owner Barbara Coppinger. "I think the number-one problem with downtown through this recession and hard economic times are those meters and the fact that downtown is not merchant-friendly or customer-friendly."

Despite the changes, Smart Girls Consignment on Carteret Street is surviving the recession, Coppinger said. Her August sales were terrible -- but they always are that time of year, she said. Overall, sales are not down from last year, she added.

"The strong survive," she said. "That's the answer."

Other business owners, including Lisa Estes, who owns the soon-to-be-closed Bay Street Trading Co., say meters have nothing to do with the problem.


Carlotta Ungaro, president of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, said her members might still be concerned about the economy, but no more so than in the two years since the financial crisis began.

Accommodations-tax revenue collected by the state is actually up about 5 percent from last year in the city of Beaufort, she said.

"Tourism travel is up, but whether they're spending or not, I don't know," she said.

Officials agreed it is important that Beaufort continue to put its best foot forward, sprucing up empty storefronts instead of boarding them up or papering them over -- a look that might turn off both visitors and locals.

The new vacancies could look to the old Lipsitz Department Store, Keyserling said, which has filled its windows with displays.

"Downtown Beaufort is going to survive, but we're going to have to work harder," Keyserling said.

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