It’s back to basics for many island businesses | Year in Review

This past year was not kind to the majority of the island’s businesses, especially those in retail, real estate and construction. It was one of those economic events where the strong hung in there and the weak, well, if they didn’t close, then they’re still barely open.

It was the kind of year where the ill-prepared were often casualties, while those who survived or flourished did so because they saw the downturn coming and made the adjustments required to stay afloat.

At least a couple dozen island retailers have gone out of business during the last 18 months, most of which were specialty shops in downtown Winslow. Several food and/or drink concerns have struggled, closing and putting the business on the market; and there are indications more will follow.

The real estate and building industries continued to slump, though the number of residential transactions moved up a tick during the last few months.

The banking industry has taken a hit in Kitsap County, too, including American Marine Bank. Bainbridge’s hometown financial institution suffered significant losses in 2009 with about $20 million in real estate loans remaining on the books, which led to the bank seeking help from investors and oversight by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

A good example of the yin and yang of island development can be found at Lynwood Center, where different approaches have produced opposite results.

Architect Steve Romein, owner of the Lynwood Center complex, is nearing the successful completion of a year-long renovation of the building. Expansion of the second-story apartments and the Treehouse Cafe are the biggest changes.

Meanwhile, Bill Nelson’s 16-acre Blossom Hill development across the street remains stalled because of financial difficulties. Nelson’s Rich Pass LLC had 15 liens placed on the corporation during July and August, totaling more than $1 million. Nelson also closed Edna’s Cafe and is looking for a buyer. Still, he hasn’t given up yet and hopes to get an infusion of money in 2010.

Winslow, however, stands out as the island’s biggest problem area. A couple of merchants said that while they support the Winslow Way reconstuction project, it may be a blessing that it was delayed a year so the district has more time to get back on its collective feet.

Part of the problem, some people say, are downtown rents that are similar to those in Seattle, despite customer numbers that pale compared to those in the big city. There’s also the entrepreneurial perception that money is plentiful here because the island is home to some wealthy people. Not the case, said Kevin Dwyer, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.

“Business people come here and think there’s a lot of money,” Dwyer said. “But people here are not conspicuous consumers. They don’t over-buy. They shop locally, but they’re also practical.”

Generally, even some of the more established businesses on the island had flat incomes during 2009, but they countered that by being careful with every penny that came their way. For example:

– Tom Adelott, owner of Doc’s Marina Grill, learned from being hit hard in November and December 2008. “We looked at the ledger and figured out ways to cut back,” said Adelott. “We worked out a strategy on how to run a tighter ship during the summer, which is when we store a lot of nuts away for the winter. That allowed us to do a complete remodel in November and close down for two weeks to install a state-of-the-art kitchen. Overall, we’ve been blessed by good employees and faithful customers who helped us get through a difficult time.”

– Howard Block, co-owner of Bay Hay and Feed, said in 2008 they started figuring out what expenses could be reduced without affecting the lives of their employees.

“Re-examining everything really paid off,” he said, “especially when you’ve had many years of growth and you get a false sense of security. You expect things to keep growing. It’s addictive. We saw it immediately when the price of oil went up. That woke us up.”

Block also thought the “buy local” campaign has been successful on the island.

– Steve Mikami, co-owner of the local Ace Hardware store, said he generally had “a flat 2009,” except for December when sales plummeted for one reason or an other. “We’re thrilled with ‘flat’ because generally hardware stores are down more.”

The Christmas season was much like the rest of the year, said several merchants. An exception was the Calico Cat toy and game stores in the Winslow Green.

Owner Elizabeth Dahl said her numbers were up more than 20 percent for the year and even higher in December.

“The year was good,” she said. “Part of it was because we expanded and added games. People were careful about getting the right gift, which was good for us.”

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