ITHACA, N.Y.—Over the past couple of years, the future of retail has changed—again. When COVID hit, brick and mortar retail stores, especially small businesses, had to pivot to a new normal that incorporated online or curbside options for customers, with an even more intense urgency than there had been prior. 

As variants progressed but businesses reopened, the goal changed. Rather than focusing on expanding options online, the goal became encouraging shoppers to return in-store, and keep the doors open for business owners who had weathered the COVID storm.

The Ithaca Commons, for example, has a noticeably large number of vacant storefronts, and over the past few months, it seems like every other week another business has announced its departure from the Commons — F. Oliver’s, Waffle Frolic and T-Shirt Express are all Commons staples that have closed in the last six months, with the owners citing various reasons ranging from wanting to prioritize family time to staffing issues.

By the Voice’s quick count for 2022 on the Commons proper (defined as the straight pedestrian portion of State Street spanning between North Aurora Street and North Cayuga Street excluding Restaurant Row) six shops have closed while three have opened.

As of early December, 49 ground-level storefronts on the proper Ithaca Commons were occupied and 14 were vacant, with a large portion of that being the Harold’s Square space, counted in this case as a single ground-level storefront. One of those vacancies is the former Mate Factor building where the Yellow Deli is, ostensibly, reopening soon, though the location has seen very stagnant progress since the announcement in 2017—despite a banner put up months ago that announced a restart of business in Fall 2023.

For municipalities that see heavy tourism like the City and Town of Ithaca, the question of the future of retail holds much significance, as a thriving pedestrian street relies on enough lively businesses to support its visitors.

Gary Ferguson, executive director at the DIA, said that certain sectors faced more hardship from the pandemic than others, namely the entertainment industry, because those businesses had to remain closed for more than a year.

“During the pandemic, we saw many more people begin to embrace the idea of internet sales — a lot of consumers do that,” he said, adding that many businesses are working on creating an internet presence, but that it takes additional resources they may not have.

Entertainment industries and restaurants are among those that faced additional fallout from the pandemic, and Silky Jones, Lot10 and Just A Taste are some of the businesses that closed during early to mid-2020, the most intense period of public restrictions related to COVID-19.

Aside from the existing storefronts that now have no tenant, new-build space remains largely empty — Harold’s Square advertises its available space, but the new Paris Baguette franchise is the only business that has existed in any portion of that space.

Jay Sciarabba, Commons business owner and landlord, said that he thinks part of the reason the Harold’s Square space remains vacant is because of the ongoing construction, which impacts the accessibility of the business.

Jerry Dietz, local landlord and business owner, said that he believes that “some of what we’re all experiencing with retail is the massive ability to purchase online,” adding that the pandemic likely accelerated and cemented people’s comfortability with conducting business that way.

Another factor, he said, is the importance of landlords being forward-thinking and able to look at the big picture — in this case, the importance of having a lively and desired downtown shopping area. 

“If a landlord charges just too much for rent, in an already difficult climate to do business in, we’re going to experience vacancies,” Dietz said. “It’s a lot of different things, but sometimes the rent is too high, sometimes it’s just burnout.”

Sciarabba shared similar views to Dietz, citing the impact of online shopping on brick-and-mortar stores.

“Mom and pops are having a hard time surviving, you’re seeing that all over the place. It’s tough getting employees,” he said. “When you get something online, you don’t have to get in your car and use gas and then pay for parking, you just get it to your door.”

Sciarabba also said that he believes that the trend for types of businesses on the Commons are changing.

“We’re starting to see the shift from daytime walking traffic to a nighttime and nightlife Commons,” he said, noting the many vape and smoke shops that have begun to populate the Commons, with more seemingly on the way.

Sciarabba added that businesses on the Commons are not truly the primary driver of out-of-town tourists to the area. For those in nearby towns, the economic convenience may be what attracts them, but those staying for longer than a few hours are likely drawn to the area for different reasons. 

“People come to Ithaca for the scenic beauty, not for the shopping,” he said. “We won’t know the true future of retail for three or four years. Once the convention center is done, the construction is gone and people can park, we’ll have a better idea.”

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is the digital editor/reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Joining in November 2021, she has covered a wide range of topics related to local news. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com,...