Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New library does not boost Town Center business

Germantown shop owners disappointed that year-old facility hasn’t helped sales

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More than a year after the opening of the Germantown Library, neighboring Town Center business owners say they are still waiting for the new customers they hoped it would deliver.Business was slow on Friday and Saturday afternoon along the block on Century Boulevard occupied by a string of shops, restaurants and other establishments that were among the intended beneficiaries of the new library. A few people ate lunch at sidewalk tables, but many more strolled or drove by without stopping.

‘‘We thought it would be a big draw, but it hasn’t turned out that way so far,” said PeterFinkhauser, owner of the French Quarter Cafe.

Not all the news about economic development in Town Center has been disappointing. County officials and business leaders believe the right mix of retail, housing and cultural amenities like the library will make the downtown an attractive place to live and work.

They received encouraging news Monday with the release of figures showing a decline in office vacancies in Germantown. The percentage of vacancies fell from 19.2 percent in the first quarter of 2004 to 9.8 percent in mid-April 2008, according to a commercial real estate database company that the county uses to track vacancies. The comparable numbers for the first quarter in other years were 14.5 percent in 2005; 9.4 percent in 2006; and 12 percent in 2007.

Raul Medrano, a county economic development specialist who focuses on Germantown, called the 2008 figures ‘‘very competitive with the rest of the county.”

Office jobs are crucial to supporting retail businesses in the area, and the library has an important role to play in attracting them, Medrano said.

But store owners say they are still waiting to see the benefits the library was supposed to bring to them. They say the library has succeeded in drawing more people to Town Center, but most don’t stop to shop or eat. Instead they use the library and occupy parking spaces in front of the stores, thereby making them more inaccessible to regular customers, Finkhauser said.

‘‘I’ve heard from other people that it’s almost been a negative,‘‘ Finkhauser said of the library.Delays in completing the library hurt the pedestrian traffic of some businesses and led the county to distribute impact assistance fund grants to several of them, including the French Quarter, Obee’s Soup and Salad and Subs, Fashion Nail Spa and Beers and Cheers.

But the grants only soured Christie Liljestrand, owner of the Jewel and Bead Gallery. Her business’s application was rejected for reasons she still doesn’t understand. Medrano said Jewel and Bead Gallery was the only one of eight businesses applying for a grant to be rejected. The county wanted to see financial information from the businesses showing how delays in construction had hurt them, he said. While the number of customers visiting her store has remained flat, Liljestrand said, she has acquired an eyesore in the form of an overflowing trash can in front of the library.

‘‘It’s been like that for over a week,” she said Saturday. On Tuesday, Liljestrand said the trash was collected around 2 p.m., after she had placed a phone call to county officials.

‘‘I went out yesterday and picked up all the trash off the street and on the sidewalk,” she said.

Larry Herman, who co-owns California Tortilla with his brother, Jason, didn’t criticize the library, but he also said it has made no discernible difference in his business. The arrival of warm weather and a schedule of outdoor concerts at BlackRock Center for the Arts may help, he said.

‘‘But based on last year, I think it’s going to be a minimal change,” he said.

Medrano agrees with those regretting the lack of customers for their businesses that better signage could help direct people to attractions and prime parking spots. He called better directions on the road to and from Town Center a ‘‘desperately needed” improvement.

‘‘There’s no center to the downtown,” Finkhauser said. ‘‘Everything is so spread out, so you can’t get out of your car and do more than one thing.”

A customer eating a sandwich at Panera Bread said she had no difficulty making her way into Town Center, which is 10 minutes away by car from her workplace.

‘‘I go to the public library every week,” Linda Mielke said. But she admitted she holds libraries in high regard for an obvious reason.

She said she is the librarian at her company.