ITHACA, NY – With news of a former Commons businesses closing its doors, we felt it was an opportune time to revisit the question of how well businesses on the Commons have recovered since the reconstruction was completed.
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We followed up with some of the businesses that we spoke with last year. Here’s what they had to say:
Casablanca Pizza owner Adil Griguihi who last year reported that things had gotten so bad the shop hadn’t been able to pay its rent, seemed more optimistic this year, but cautioned that things were still uncertain until the winter season was over.
“There’s defintiely more foot traffic, even though it’s cold out. For a long time there were no people,” Griguihi said. “I’m optimistic, but it’s important to remember that we still have to make up for the losses from the construction last year.”
Now You’re Cooking co-owner Jerry Martins said his business is still suffering, but not necessarily because of the construction.
“Well, things did get better for a couple of weeks, until they put in the new parking system,” he said. Martins feels that business should’ve picked up, but said he’s heard a number of complaints from his customers that the parking system is discouraging them from making the trip to the Commons – and he’s heard the same from other local business owners.
Crows’ Nest Cafe owner William MacDaniel, who said last year that he was “hanging on by the skin of his teeth,” said business hasn’t really recovered at all.
“It’s human nature, we’re creatures of habit” he said, “the construction went on so long, people got in the habit of going anywhere except the Commons.”
MacDaniel feels that it will take some exciting new “anchor” businesses on the Commons to draw people back and get them excited about the area – until then, he feels, his business will continue to suffer.
Mansour Jewelers owner David Abdulky who said that traffic was down last year, said that business has been holding steady. He classifies his business as a “destination business” that people come to the commons for, as compared to businesses which primary draw business from foot traffic. As such, Mansour has seen less of a fluctuation.
“Retail is a challenging business to keep up with,” Abdulky says. ” Whatever the political or economic situation, you’ve got to come up with the right answers to do well.”
The Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s take
Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, shared some of his thoughts on the situation. While the DIA did not do any formal survey as they had done previously, Ferguson said the DIA was in regular one-on-one contact with businesses on the Commons and working to understand the specific challenges they are facing.
Acknowledging the “real and tangible fall off” to businesses during the construction, Ferguson said that “there has been a sense that there would be an immediate and decisive turnaround… like we’d turn a spigot on and people would come right back… Traffic that went away is taking time to build back, depending on the affected market segments. Different businesses are reporting very different and varied levels of traffic.”
Speaking to a holiday season that was perceived as somewhat anemic, Ferguson said that DIA research indicated that wasn’t isolated to the Commons, but a trend elsewhere locally and nationally. He reported that DIA sold the same number of gift cards in 2015 as in 2014, but for a lesser total dollar amount, indicating that shoppers were overall spending less. He also pointed to the closing of 40 Macy’s stores and 200 Walmart stores to illustrate the challenges facing the retail world.
Ferguson attributed the slower return of traffic partially to the season. “Students are away in January. Weather is quintessentially bad and not conducive to shopping.” The DIA is working on events, such as a current winter sale and February’s Chili Cook-Off, to help draw people back in.
According to Ferguson, these events have been successful so far. He said that throughout 2015, downtown events drew 130,000 people – more people than any previous year, despite the construction.
Like Now You’re Cooking’s co-owner, Ferguson also indicated the city’s new parking system as a problem point, particularly for older residents or others who aren’t tech-savvy. He said the DIA is currently collaborating with the Director of Parking on a campaign to help familiarize people with the use and benefits of these new parking machines.
Ferguson was overall optimistic that the Commons would continue on an upward trajectory. He expressed excitement for the completion of the Marriott Hotel near the Commons, slated for completion in August. The hotel will boast 159 rooms and is expected to maintain a 70 to 80 percent occupancy rate, bringing a lot of new traffic to the Commons.
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