Erie's Downtown: Still a great place to do business?

Categories:  Features    Community
Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 at 12:00 AM
Erie's Downtown: Still a great place to do business? by Mark Toriski

For more than five years the City of Erie has been working on a “re-kindled opportunity to bring you back to the city” via an ambitious downtown redevelopment campaign. Today you can see results in the improved city streets, parks, façades, and (most important) the addition of numerous businesses to the downtown district. But several business owners are not seeing the bright side of things and are starting to cause an uproar over what they consider misrepresentation from local leaders and misguided direction in how to properly steer the burgeoning downtown to becoming a suitable business community. And now they are threatening actions that could be detrimental to its future prosperity.

It’s just after 1 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon and the lunch rush has died down at Reese’s Pizza & More, a popular downtown restaurant located on Ninth and State Streets. The last remaining tables of men and women in office attire are returning to work and owner Donna Reese knows that was the peak of business for the day.

For more than 10 years, the pizzeria has been a staple of downtown Erie and a favorite among the business community, particularly because of their daily lunchtime pizza buffet. Reese – herself a longtime business owner and currently the leader of the Erie Small Business Alliance, an organization whose primary function is to facilitate business growth through referrals, contacts, training, support, and community awareness – purchased the restaurant in late 2010 from its previous owners and began retooling the establishment, creating a more family-friendly environment by offering nightly specials and entertainment including Friday night family karaoke.

And yet despite the ambitious efforts, Reese’s numbers remain less than stellar, leaving the embattled businesswoman to search every available option to help her generate more business – a task Reese says is proving difficult, claiming a lack of response from local organizations put in place for such reasons. Specifically, she names the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Downtown Partnership. Now she fears that she may soon have to take drastic actions just to keep her business afloat.

“It’s frustrating being downtown and having to try to get people through the door. We are struggling and yet nobody ever comes to us, asking what they can do to help us,” says Reese. “I need to figure out how to get more business in here or we will have to leave downtown.”

Revitalization, Renaissance, and Resentment

One of the biggest platforms of Mayor Joe Sinnott’s administration has been his vision for downtown Erie. In the past six years, tens of millions of dollars have been spent by state and local government, as well as by private individuals, in rebuilding the dilapidating downtown in order to make it a destination, a place to once again live in, and a formidable business community. Comparing the State Street of today to the State Street of nearly 10 years ago, you can see a plan in action with numerous projects from numerous organizations routinely taking shape and more and more businesses opening their doors.    

“Six years ago, we partnered with the Redevelopment Authority and the City of Erie to do a master plan for the downtown,” says Brenda A. Sandberg, CEO of the Downtown Partnership. “A couple months ago, I looked at it and a significant number of things in that plan have begun or have been finished. That doesn’t happen in many cities. I’m very enthusiastic not only about what we’ve done, but where we’re headed.”

Created in 2004 by a City Council ordinance, the Downtown Partnership was put in place to assist in the revitalization of downtown Erie by way of three key points – economic development, design, and promotions. These are achieved through a variety of means including a small maintenance staff, streetscaping projects, grants for façade improvements, and— their most visible effort— downtown events including the annual summer Block Parties. The Partnership currently has 70 individual members—business owners who pay a small annual fee of $10— as well as every property owner covering the organization’s 70-block radius, spanning from Sassafras to Holland Streets and 14th Street to the waterfront, as determined by the city’s zoning ordinance. It is one of 800 organizations of its kind in the United States.

“We are in constant contact with the City Hall and the SBDC because we all work together as different components,” says Sandberg. “There’s certain projects that couldn’t have happened without our organization existing, such as the $3.3 million streetscaping project from 12th to 14th Streets taking place this summer. We’re very active. Everything may not be a check in the business owner’s hand to help them, but alleviating the perception of downtown is economic development.”  

But despite the presence of organizations like the Downtown Partnership and SBDC, several businesses are not feeling like they are being serviced to the best of their abilities. “My biggest complaint is there are a lot of things done to promote downtown by way of events like the Block Parties, but I don’t see anything being done to help small businesses in terms of day-to-day business development,” says Reese. “Downtown can’t survive on events alone. I’m all about trying to promote downtown business. We need to figure out how we can get the businesses together to form a cooperative effort and drive business to each other. We need to figure out how to get people downtown, because it’s a dying area and I’m not seeing anything this city has done to help struggling small businesses.”

Sandberg disagrees, citing an extremely full workload with the immense coverage area of the Partnership as well as being a force in the community. “We try to be extremely active in the day-to-day activities of businesses,” she retorts. “One way we do that is I serve on more boards and committees then I care to expand on. I’m always representing our interest. We have general membership meetings, where we are in contact with individuals, and send out monthly newsletters and I try to make a point to stop and visit as many businesses as I can. We went door-to-door last summer talking to individuals and business owners about what we can do to make their lives better. I would love to be out there more and in other communities. Other organizations like ours cover nine blocks. We have 70, so it’s hard at times.”

John Buchna, Retail Business Consultant for the SBDC, has heard similar claims from businesses and feels that a lot of their worries may be in how his organization is perceived. “When you look at the magnitude of different businesses that exist, every business owner is different. Every business owner has expectations and realities,” he states. “When we engage and offer our services, the reality of it is some of them have the expectations that we are going to do all this work for them and they won’t have to do anything. They are the owners and they have to take accountability and ownership for their actions. Our group consults with them to help their business improve. It’s their business and their responsibility to control what they need to do.”      

For more than 30 years, the SBDC has played a role in the growth of downtown development by acting as a consultant and mentor to burgeoning and existing businesses. One of 18 in the state, the organization services nearly 650 small business clients a year in Erie, Crawford, Mercer, and Warren Counties through complimentary and confidential services ranging from financial projections to marketing initiatives to organizing seminars on varying topics and themes aimed at the needs of their clients.

“Groups like us and the Downtown Partnership, the Erie Regional Chamber, and the Manufacturer’s Association are here to consult with businesses based upon knowledge, experience, data, etc.,” states Buchna. “What’s frustrating is when we get the positive people who praise our organizations then those who don’t because we believe their expectations were we would be doing it for them – bringing them new business and this and that. It’s a challenge but it’s also a reality of the owners when they engage with groups like ours.”

Five years ago Chris Sirianni was preparing to open the first brewpub in downtown Erie, stating a fixed desire to locate his establishment downtown as it was, “designated for culture, entertainment, and the arts.” The buzz around the Brewerie, located inside the newly renovated Union Station, was immense, and yet it almost never came to fruition. “We had six months without being able to open our doors because of licensing issues. We had exhausted our resources getting this place ready to open, paying rent and utilities…we were on our last thread,” he says. “The Department of Economic Development from the Mayor’s Office contacted me and all of a sudden things were getting done and it got us open. I saw their enthusiasm to work with small businesses and that was the beginning of good stuff for us. I see people who gripe and complain and I say get off the sidelines and get involved. When your business is hanging in the balance, you have to get connected and be involved. I might not always get the results I wanted, but I have to be proactive.”

 “When you hear the horror stories from local business owners, I think those people may not have been prepared before they started building their business,” says George Gourlias, owner of Bistro 26, an American–Mediterranean style restaurant located on the city’s west side. “Before you make an investment, you have to know what you are in for. The SBDC helped me out. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to write the business plan I approached the bank with. There are a lot of gateways out there for people to ask for help, whether or not they go to them is up to the person.”

 “A Perception More Than a Reality”

To put it as eloquently as the name of a soon-to-be-archived Facebook page, “The Erie Parking Authority Sucks a Nut” – at least according to the views of the less than 100 Gannon University students who joined the group, which was dedicated to gripes about receiving parking tickets and the downtown parking situation as a whole courtesy of students of Erie’s only downtown university.

But while college students took to the Internet to voice their disapproval for downtown parking, local business owners are taking a more direct approach in airing their grievances. In April, the Erie Times-News reported on Debbie Bliley, a downtown business owner for the past 25 years who closed her business, citing a lack of parking for her customers as one of her main issues. Luckily for the downtown business community, Bliley found a new retail space for her store, Impromptu, inside the Avalon Hotel. She now has free parking for her customers. And now other businesses are threatening similar action.

“The idea that parking is a limiting factor [for downtown businesses] is absolute nonsense,” says Ray Massing, executive director for the Erie Parking Authority. “If you take the time to drive around those streets during business hours and look and see if there is nowhere to park and you are unable to find a significant amount of parking, then you have your eyes closed. People want two things – they want to park right in front of where they are going and they want it to be free. Somebody says there is no parking but the reality is they are not willing to walk a block. That’s the nature of our society and that’s the constant battle we are fighting.”

According to Massing, there are 1,850 meters operating in downtown Erie, generating approximately $850,000 in revenue for the Parking Authority in 2010. In addition, four parking garages are located throughout downtown, of which “none are ever full,” Massing reports. The meters’—which are not in operation after 6 p.m. just on city street locations— placement and time limits are determined by their purpose and what is in proximity to them, namely to allow for adequate turnover for patrons of downtown.

“There are just under 30,000 individuals working in the 70 blocks of downtown. The meters allow for turnover in those spaces, as opposed to a property owner or employee occupying them all day,” says Sandberg. “I’m not going to deny that parking can be somewhat of a detriment – it can be horrible on certain evenings when multiple events come together on the schedule. But I think the level it is perceived is more than it is. There’s plenty of parking. This is a perception more than it is a reality issue.” 

“I can see issues of parking affecting downtown, but the Plymouth Tavern has no parking whatsoever and Erie makes a point to go there,” adds Sirianni, who shrugs off losing 66 spaces in the recent Griswold Park expansion project. “In other cities you find places to park and you walk. We are spoiled compared to Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Here you have the luxury of parking, sometimes for free, and walking just a couple blocks or jumping on the Bayliner Trolley, which you often see empty, and riding it down State Street for free.”

Several business owners interviewed for this article, some of which have declined to go on the record, disagree with the Parking Authority’s views on the downtown situation and have stated that they have considered or are considering relocating their businesses to become more accommodating to parking for their clientele and employees – but unlike Bliley and her move across downtown, most are citing the city’s west side as a possible ideal location to meet their needs.

Location, Location, Location

Donna Reese has already given thought to what a move away from downtown could do for her business. The lease on her existing space expires in less than three years and she is adamant about reevaluating just how successful she can be downtown when it comes time to renew. “I can’t tell you the number of people I talk about my restaurant to. They know what it is, but they’ve never been to it,” she says. “We have a great product and we could have a great dining establishment and a killer delivery service [in a west side location]. We would do fabulously.” And Reese’s Pizza is not the only business considering what a move west could do for them. Another popular downtown restaurateur stated how moving his business to Erie’s west side would vastly improve the number of customers on any given evening.

The west side has gone through a rebirth of its own in recent years. The Shops at the Colony and the Village West Shopping Plaza continue to offer unique retail opportunities to shoppers, 26th and 12th Streets remain busy thoroughfares and have had major projects of their own, and Erie’s culinary world is making its mark with the Moroccan-themed Casablanca Grill and the aforementioned Bistro 26, among others, opening in the past year.

“Strategically, what’s happened in almost every other city is that they have a ‘mall area’ and a ‘downtown.’ If we can have local independent businesses that can grow and support themselves in that environment, that’s great for the regional economy,” says Sandberg. “My argument is, ‘go shopping where you want to go shopping. Go eat where you want to go eat.’ We want businesses to thrive and grow. If they are able to move out of downtown, that means we must’ve done something right in giving them the opportunity to grow. We just need to back that. That’s how the region as a whole will grow. I don’t look at it as competition between downtown and the west side or upper Peach, it’s about growth.”

George Gourlias knows how to grow a business in any location. In March 2010, he opened Bistro 26 along the bustling West 26th Street after 19 years of running the Lawrence Park Dinor, a local favorite tucked away on the borough’s quiet Main Street. “I don’t particularly think business works just on location. They always say ‘location, location, location,’ but I think it’s ‘service, service, service,’” he says. “I don’t care if it’s downtown, east side, west side…if you give people great service for a fair price, you can make it anywhere. My location for the Lawrence Park Dinor, was not the best location as far as being on the main drag, but people knew us and respected us. We had great years there.”

J.B. Innes cites the opposite effect of location on his business. Innes, along with business partner Dan Kern, has operated downtown’s 1201 Kitchen since 2008, steering it from its shaky beginnings to becoming one of downtown’s most acclaimed fine dining establishments. “Our location may be our biggest asset,” he reveals. “If I was on the west side, I doubt if many people from the east side or upper Glenwood would come visit. We are on the corner of 12th and State Streets. Probably more cars pass by here than anywhere else. Dan and I love being a part of the downtown scene. The arts scene provides us with a lot of business. For us, if we just continue what we are doing, people will continue to come and visit us. We picked to be here.”

“[Moving to the west side] is almost a result of demand,” adds Sirianni, who asserts his satisfaction of the Brewerie’s location. “You’ve seen the west side and Millcreek just blow up over the years and there are not a lot of unique craft food places out there and I think they are feeling like an unfulfilled demand. But there’s room for downtown and there’s room for the west side. In larger cities you see these types of places concentrated together in areas. It’s good. The more, the merrier.”

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