This story was originally published yesterday in 14850 Magazine.

Why I shop downtown — Carmen

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Ithaca, N.Y. — In the middle of the holiday shopping season, with the end of the Commons reconstruction project finally in sight, many downtown Ithaca merchants are optimistic. For one store owner, though, the news isn’t so good.

Olivia Royale, owner of The Art & Found in Center Ithaca, says she heard this week from Frost Travis, of Travis Hyde Properties, with just a few days to go before Christmas, that she had 60 days to be out of her Center Ithaca space.

The Art & Found was one of two winners of Downtown Ithaca’s Race for the Space contest, which promised a year of free rent and newspaper advertising to a small business willing to open in a vacant downtown storefront in 2012. The other winner, Trumansburg’s Life’s So Sweet Chocolates, opened in a Green Street storefront.

The store set out to offer “eco-friendly” fashions, a sustainable and artistic approach to turning cast-off or hand-me-down garments into something new, in addition to producing new clothing from scratch. A series of “Swap & Shop” events at the store gave area residents a chance to exchange unwanted t-shirts, flannels, sweaters, and other items for store credit, and gave Royale and her artist friends an opportunity to create new items from the old clothes. The bi-weekly Swap & Shop events are the second and fourth Friday of each month from 5-8pm.

“My landlord approached me when the free year from the Race for the Space was up to talk about renegotiating our terms,” says Royale. “He suggested 10% of sales, and I said 15% because I was grateful for the full year. We had a contract written up, which he kept abating signing, saying he wanted to make sure all the numbers were right. A year went by of him never signing the contract, and then he reached out on Friday to ‘meet and touch base,’” she says.

Royale brought her toddler to a meeting today, and tells 14850 Magazine, “I said I would like to finish out my lease, but he said since I wasn’t paying the full amount that the lease was not applicable anymore. I asked what my end date was, and he said, ‘February.’”

“We entered into this arrangement with high hopes,” says Frost Travis, of Travis Hyde Properties. “They had the best plan, and they were excited to open their business,” he added. “I love the idea of upcycling vintage and used clothing, but it’s a niche market,” the landlord says. “She hasn’t proved she can make it work in a brick and mortar setting.” He feels the store might be better suited to a micro-retail venue like the Press Bay Alley complex that opened this summer.

Travis, the son of Ithaca Rentals & Renovations founder Mack Travis, took over the business with brother in law Chris Hyde in 2010, after Mack retired after over 30 years in the property management business. In addition to Center Ithaca, the company owns or manages Gateway Center, Gateway Commons, and several other downtown and Collegetown retail and apartment buildings.

“She’s made great efforts to do this,” Mr. Travis told 14850 Magazine, “but it’s not enough.” He said he asked Royale to close the store this winter, “rather than continue to add to her debt burden.”

Royale said she feels taken advantage of, after paying for two years to occupy a space that had been empty, with the Commons torn up for a massive reconstruction project for that entire time. “Considering I was given this space from a contest, I think I did a really great job, especially since I was able to make it through the construction, as well.”

“Historically, we could get $30 a foot for that space, though that’s not possible right now,” Travis says.

These days, prime storefront space on the Commons is only fetching about $12-16 per square foot, after six years of recession economy and two years of disruptive construction that has dragged on way past originally projected completion dates. Though he has no prospective tenant lined up for the space, Travis says he’d like to open it up to new takers, “even with the end of construction coming.”

“My experience working at The Art and Found has made me grow as a person and as a young business woman,” says sales associate Carson Jordan, “especially through the guidance and care of Olivia Royale.” The 21-year-old Wells College student says she “and other coworkers have worked on creating branding for ourselves as young artists, crafts-women, and sustainable people” under Royale’s tutelage.

“Having a sustainable clothing store on the Commons that showed the community a variety of what ‘sustainable’ can mean, unlike many other hokey, expensive, and one-sided interpretations of that in Ithaca, inspired people to ask questions, shop mindfully, and importantly make their own sustainable lives,” Jordan told us.

“Many people came to our Swap & Shops excited to see their old sweaters be turned into skirts and leg warmers. They felt like they were a part of a change, and they absolutely were.”

“This isn’t a ‘Poor Olivia’ moment; this is a ‘Poor Ithaca’ moment,” says Royale, thinking about the 30 or so vendors and brands that her store supports. “There (are) other local people now affected by that decision that I am responsible for. I take that responsibility seriously,” she says.

Royale says shoppers who’d like to pick up some last-minute holiday gifts will be welcome at the store from 12-8pm on Tuesday, December 23rd, and 12-6pm on Christmas Eve, “and then probably 12-6 from here on out.”

We asked her what she plans after the store closes later this winter. “What I do next will be bigger than what I just did,” says Royale. “I never go backward.”

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.