‘We need help’ say merchants

Winslow merchants have decided to act upon mounting concerns with the city over construction and its negative effects on their businesses, asking and receiving $6,000 to help with the holiday season.

Winslow merchants have decided to act upon mounting concerns with the city over construction and its negative effects on their businesses, asking and receiving $6,000 to help with the holiday season.

On Wednesday, Terry Arndt, co-owner of Paper Products, Etc., brought the concerns of a number of downtown merchants to City Council.

According to Arndt, the construction projects along Winslow Way have negatively affected a number of businesses over the past year. As downtown merchants look toward the approaching holiday season, which accounts for a significant portion of annual sales, they want to ensure that there are no further disruptions to their businesses.

“We will make 40 percent of our sales in the next month and a half,” Arndt said. “It’s our biggest season.”

Arndt’s message was meant to publicly inform the city about the reality of doing business on Winslow Way during the construction. Many merchants have felt as if the city has not heard their previous frustrations regarding the negative impacts on their businesses, and putting it on the public record was the next step.

“There hasn’t been true, heartfelt sentiment for the vendors from city officials,” said Greg Epstein, owner of Bainbridge Island BBQ. “That’s been the disconnect between the city, elected officials and the businesses in the downtown area. There is an opportunity here for the city to step up and show that there are officials who care.”

Through Arndt, merchants made a number of requests of the city to help the holiday season succeed:

• To dedicate funding to holiday decor along Winslow Way in order to attract customers;

• Provide funding for advertising so residents are aware Winslow Way is open for business;

• Review funding sources to support the recovery of the downtown area; and

• An update regarding the remaining construction projects, their impact on traffic and parking. Plus, if these projects extend past Dec. 10, they would like that all construction be suspended until after the new year so that local businesses are not further harmed during the holiday season.

Arndt officially asked for $6,000 to cover the funding for the various requests, which was eventually unanimously approved by the council.

The council took $4,000 from the city’s communications fund, along with $1,400 from the council’s contingency fund.

Council Mayor Kirsten Hytopoulos, whose pay as mayor is slightly above other council members, offered to fill the leftover $600 gap from her own salary to round out the number.

Struggling sales

According to a Nov. 2 presentation to the council from Finance & Administrative Services Director Ellen Schroer, during the first three quarters of 2011, downtown Winslow saw a net loss of nine businesses. However, sales tax revenue for Bainbridge Island businesses over the first three quarters in 2011 were up slightly over last year.

The sales tax revenues specific to downtown Winslow also reflected a positive outcome, which may indicate that Winslow Way businesses held solid over the time of construction.

“There are some businesses that have had limited impact,” Arndt said. “But for us, we’ve averaged a 15 percent loss from the summer months. You can pretty much point to the day they dumped cement in front of our store and sales dropped.”

After performing their own survey comparing last year’s sales to now, Sweet Deal Clothing also claims a 10 percent loss in sales from the time construction started.

According to Arndt’s presentation to the council, Sweet Deal Clothing isn’t alone. The Traveler reported a third-quarter loss of 5 percent in sales, Zia Clothing is looking at a 20 percent loss for the year. Closet Transfer reported their sales have been cut in half for the year, while the 122 restaurant is facing a 66 percent decrease in its lunch sales alone.

“In all, the businesses I represent anticipate a total lost sales in excess of $500,000,” Arndt said, “with the potential of reaching $1 million.”

Constructive discussion

Wednesday’s presentation to the council was the culmination of frustrations felt by a number of downtown merchants. Acknowledging their mutual concern over the difficult times faced during construction, they informally met on Nov. 1 at Bainbridge Island BBQ to discuss how each had been affected.

It was here that they decided to address the council at its next meeting, and Arndt was nominated to take on the task.

“We can’t point fingers and we can’t start yelling and demanding,” Arndt said. “We needed to go in there and work together to come up with a plan.”

Epstein noted that around 10 to 15 businesses were represented at the informal meeting at his establishment, all with similar concerns and stories, many consisting of how construction has deterred locals and tourists from coming into their stores, or even down the street.

Paper Products, Etc. had a fence and tarp blocking the store’s entrance at one point. Customers had to navigate a narrow opening between the fence and the door just to enter the store.

Sweet Deal Clothing currently has a “slope” on the sidewalk extending past their store that has resulted in a number of trips. Project Manager Chris Wierzbicki said the slope is currently planned to be corrected, creating further work to be done in front of the store.

“It’s tough when I have a picture of a big excavator and a sign that says ‘do not enter’ taken from the perspective of looking towards my place,” Epstein said. “It’s tough to get a person to walk through that.”

In the end, it was decided that a positive approach looking forward was preferable.

Weather permitting, most of the construction work will be finished by Nov. 23, followed by some clean up and minor work remaining.

The last two significant projects planned for December will still be the removal of a utility pole currently in front of That’s a Some Pizza on the east end of Winslow Way, as well as further installation of lighting, according to Wierzbicki.

“We are just gritting our teeth and moving forward. In the end we are hopeful that is will beautify the community enough that it will be worth it,” said Nicole Niehaus, co-owner of Sweet Deal Clothing, “There have been so many bumps in the road that it is difficult to see the end.”