Downtown stores checking out

February 04, 2002

Downtown stores checking out


Empty store fronts and going out of business sales normally are signs that business has taken a turn for the worse.

But city officials and some business owners say that's not the case on the first block of West Washington Street in downtown Hagerstown.

Instead, they say, it's a coincidence. Health problems for one business owner. Landlord problems for another. And maybe some people just want to retire.

"We have to look at the circumstances by which each business closed," Mayor William M. Breichner said. "There's a few businesses gone, but it presents some great opportunities for someone to get started. ... Especially with the university coming."


"I don't think there's anything wrong with the block," City Planning Director Ric Kautz said. "I won't deny it looks bad. But that doesn't mean eventually those spaces won't be filled. The retail trade is a high turnover, high mortality business. It's very competitive. ... It happens in any retail market."

Some business owners say the emptying store fronts show that business isn't good on the block that eventually could hold a new state university center.

To those people, the problems include a depressed national economy, competition from nearby shopping centers, a real or apparent lack of parking and the vacated buildings, which themselves could deter new businesses from filling the empty spaces.

"I'm barely holding on by my fingernails now," said Jeanette Ebersole, owner of Silk Flowers by Jeanette at 43 W. Washington St. Ebersole says street and sidewalk construction and several smaller problems also make the area a tough place to stay in business. She plans to close after Valentine's Day.

"After 27 years, I give up. I surrender," she said. "If somebody doesn't do something, we're not going to have a downtown. I don't think this will be the end of people leaving downtown."

From Public Square to the court house on West Washington Street, three businesses have closed or moved in recent months, and two more are going out of business.

After 15 years on the block, Vishwa Nikore, owner of Nik's Gallery at 70 W. Washington St., is closing his store either this month or next.

Business is good at Nikore's store, which mainly sells clothing and some jewelry. Nikore said he would like to stay open for a few more years, but his landlord is pushing him out.

Nik's Gallery is on the bottom floor of the former Delta Hosiery building, and building-owner Richard McCleary plans to renovate the building and turn it into offices.

McCleary said the renovations will begin in the spring, and the building will be "uninhabitable while we're renovating."

City officials offered to help Nikore relocate his business. But Nikore said that at his age, 70, he doesn't want to go through a move, so he's choosing to retire.

On the other side of the street, The Book Store, etc. at 53 W. Washington St. closed around the end of November.

But Breichner and City Councilwoman Carol N. Moller, the former owner of Carol & Company just up the street, say the book store closed because the owner had health - not business - problems.

A sign on the front door of the store says its closing is temporary. The owner of the book store could not be reached for comment.

Business was good at the RentWay before it moved from 56 W. Washington St. to the Ames Shopping Center off Dual Highway in mid-November, store manager Joe Scott said.

But the downtown location doesn't have the space for loading and unloading offered by the shopping center, he said.

"Business was OK. We did it to better our customer service," Scott said about the move.

Since RentWay moved, its former next-door neighbor, the D&K Store, a general/variety store, also has left the block.

D&K Store representatives could not be reached for comment.

The departure of businesses, for whatever the reasons, will make it even harder to bring new businesses into that area, said Manny Shaool, owner of Manny's Oriental Rugs at 72 W. Washington St.

Shaool said his business is doing well, but the block looks worse than it has at any time during his 22 years in business there.

He said there may not be a single solution to the problem, but said there may be several ways the government can help - especially with parking.

There should be more signs to direct people to the city's parking deck, and the building vacated by RentWay and the D&K Store, known as the former McCrory's building, should be torn down and turned into a parking lot, he said.

Councilwoman Moller said that's probably what will happen. The former McCrory's building is slated to be demolished under a plan to add parking and green space around the planned university center. That plan, which was developed by the Greater Hagerstown Commission, has not been funded.

The parking problem, real or perceived, was mentioned by most of the retail business owners on the block.

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