Study says local stores contribute more to island than national chains

Some downtown Winslow merchants are wary of the island’s newest proposed shopping center, and now they may have some ammunition to use in the fight against the new development.

A new survey of downtown businesses indicates that local stores contribute more to their community than their national chain competitors.

Some Winslow shop owners fear the shopping center, and the national chain stores it will host, may economically harm the downtown and the community as a whole.

“It’s hard to see how the proposed development at Highway 305 and High School Road would be good for the economic sustainability of Bainbridge Island,” said Barbara Tolliver, co-owner of The Traveler.

“(The city’s) comprehensive plan and community vision statements affirm that historic Winslow is the heart and soul of Bainbridge Island,” Tolliver added. “Yet this development seems likely to drain life blood from downtown by creating an unnecessary and competing retail cluster barely a mile away.”

It’s not just the threat to the downtown economy that has some merchants on edge.

Some are opposed to the center on the grounds that local stores help characterize a community, and chain stores do not.

“My concerns are not so much for me as a merchant, but for the saturation of shopping here,” said Terri Bryant, co-owner of Dana’s Showhouse.

“We haven’t demonstrated a need for a whole other shopping center,” Bryant added.

“There is always a hole in the mix of what’s available in a town like ours, but there isn’t a hole so big that you can drive a truck through it.”

Tolliver agrees with her fellow merchant, but focuses more on a shop-local attitude.

“I know as a traveler around the country, and the world, that it’s not the chains that people are interested in,” she added. “People want to get a sense of place, and that’s what you get with locally owned businesses.”

Bryant agrees.

She said she moved here partially because Bainbridge Island wasn’t like other towns with strip malls.

“For me moving here, I didn’t want to be in a town that is like other towns,” Bryant said. “We want a town that is uniquely ours that you can tell apart from other towns and (the shopping center) is one more step away from that.”

A recent survey of island businesses may back up the downtown merchants’ claims that local stores add more to the island than national chains.

According to a confidential survey of 13 downtown merchants who studied their business practices, local businesses pump 39.8 percent of their revenue right back into the island economy.

National chain stores, by comparison, only cycle an average of 13.6 percent into their communities.

The survey took into account the profits paid to local owners, wages for local workers, goods and services purchased for internal use and resale, and local charitable giving.

The survey was organized by the Bainbridge Island Downtown Association. The nonprofit partnered with the Indie Booksellers Association and the Civic Economics consulting firm.

The downtown association plans to release the full results once a national study, that the survey is a part of, is finished.

The profits for independent stores can already be slim. A concern for some merchants is that the coming chain stores will eat into those profits, threatening the viability of local stores while also taking the money they return to the community.

“The dollars that people spend locally, stay local,” Tolliver said.

Representatives for the Visconsi Company, the firm proposing the retail center, have already met with the city for a pre-application meeting. A public forum to introduce the project to the community was held in June.

Six buildings are included in the construction plan. The largest building will house the center’s anchor client, a Bartell Drugs store. A bank will occupy another.

A medical complex will be included behind the remaining retail portion of the site.

Representatives for the project have likened the retail center to University Village in Seattle.

Not all downtown merchants are worried about the new shopping center, however, and welcome the added development.

“Personally I think it’s a good thing,” said Terry Arndt, co-owner of Paper Products. “It’s going to add some diversity to our options on the island.”

Arndt said that the downtown shopping area serves a specific niche that is separate from what the shopping center would offer.

“When you think about downtown, it serves a unique purpose: tourism,” Arndt said. “Tourists aren’t going to drive up there.”

Arndt said that it’s the nature of business to have such competition. It’s something he has to deal with every day in his office supply business.

For example, Arndt cites how his local store sells back-to-school supplies, but so does Rite Aid and Safeway just up the street. He doesn’t like it, but he competes with it.

“If an office supply business opened up, I wouldn’t be happy about it, but that’s life in the business word,” Arndt said. “I would have to make myself smarter and better than them.”

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