Editor’s Note: The following is a guest column submitted by Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.

It was submitted following an Ithaca Voice report on Friday, “3 Ithaca Commons shops going out of business; construction blamed.”

To submit a guest column, contact me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

Written by Gary Ferguson:

Following Friday’s Ithaca Voice report on three closing downtown businesses, we received feedback at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) about the statements used as quotes for the article. This well-written article addressed the specific and personal concerns of three businesses that are unfortunately closing their doors. The statements from me reflect a policy perspective and were not aimed at that same personal business level. They left an impression that I and the DIA did not care about these businesses and for that matter any other small businesses. Hence, I want to take an opportunity to clarify to all about how the DIA and I feel about our downtown retail businesses at that personal level.

At any given time we have about 100 street level businesses in downtown, most of them retail and restaurants. These businesses represent the soul and personality of downtown. We appreciate and applaud each and every one. Retailers play a very important role in defining and providing a personality for our community. Street level businesses, more than just about any other type of business, provide the character of a place. This remains true here in Ithaca.

We rejoice when entrepreneurs announce they want to open a business in downtown. We average about 16 new businesses a year in downtown- an amazing and exciting testament to the appeal of downtown as a marketplace and the determination of our retail entrepreneurs. When a business announces it will close, we mourn. We know the hard work, sacrifice, and personal resources that have gone into each and every business and feel profoundly sad for the owners. Each year we do lose some businesses here in downtown. The loss of just one business is one too many.

The Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) is a nonprofit organization that works on several different levels. We do work at a policy level, seeking to guide and encourage growth and development in downtown and working to ensure that downtown business and commerce has the best possible environment to succeed. We do marketing and special events, all designed to help people discover and use their downtown. But we also work at a personal and micro level, helping to attract new businesses and working with our existing businesses to assist them to best of our abilities. We host initiatives to help our downtown businesses attract more customers and strengthen their bottom lines. We often work one on one with them on issues and concerns. We try to help businesses succeed. When they make that hard decision to close, we have also helped them to exit in a manner that is least painful to their personal situation. Sometimes our efforts simply are not enough.

When a business closes, it is disappointing and frustrating. Many factors impact the relative success of businesses. Some of these factors are beyond the control of the business owners—the national economy and the downtown Commons construction schedule are two such examples. The construction of the Commons has caused local traffic to temporarily drop and that has had an impact on the bottom line of a number of businesses. Some factors are personal. Some are strictly business related.
Our retailers have made huge and risky personal financial gambles opening and maintaining their stores. Many have used IRAs or 401(k) funds, family savings, or borrowed against their homes. Some use credit cards to carry their businesses during lean times. The risk of being a small business is real and present every day. One bad week could mean no paycheck for the owner, and the need to extend more debt to cover any shortfall. If one bad week turns into many, the situation only gets more tenuous.

Of course, small retail and restaurant shop owners enjoy and appreciate the ability to work for themselves and to chart their own future. They generally love their work and relish interacting with customers and clients. That interaction gives them energy and sparks them along and ahead. So many of the owners I know downtown are engaged in our community- sitting on boards, going to local ball games, attending church and synagogue, and contributing to innumerable local causes—from the high school yearbook to girl scouts to the SPCA and to local arts and human service organizations.

Most people in our community have fixed paychecks and fixed hours. The world of retail ownership is far different. Hours are long and weekends are not for time off. Some folks don’t take regular pay, and count on receiving their pay from profits at the end of a month or a year. When a business is firing on all cylinders, this can happen. When we have several months of extreme cold, customers opt to stay put in their warm homes and retail sales suffer. When local residents decide that they might visit downtown less often because they get concerned about construction, retailers pay the price.

The bottom line is this… as hard as it may be, our retail entrepreneurs have stepped forward to try and make a living by occupying our storefronts and by testing their mettle and the limits of their resources. Only a handful of us actually have the fortitude for such a high-stakes lifestyle. I want to be absolutely clear that here in downtown we respect, appreciate, and applaud the people who have stepped forward to open businesses, who will step forward in the future, or who continue year after year to maintain and work to grow their stores. We want the entire community to understand and appreciate what it takes to be a retailer or a restaurant owner.

As we begin to celebrate our new Commons pedestrian mall, let’s also celebrate these local entrepreneurs who efforts can go unseen and unappreciated. Come visit our small retail businesses. Learn their story. Celebrate their commitment and success; mourn their loss. Each and every small business represents a fascinating journey… come on down and experience this entrepreneurship for yourself. I assure you it will be worth your effort.

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Jeff Stein

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