Ben Blevins couldn't wait for college students to return to Richmond and bring what summer cash they have left to Carytown.
He literally couldn't wait, because his arts and crafts store, AlterNatives, like many of the small businesses that give the shopping district its eclectic identity, is treading water in a rising sea of expenses.
Blevins and other retailers along the six-block stretch of Cary Street say their rents are being raised past the breaking point.
"They were talking about doubling ours," Blevins says of his $1,600-a-month lease. But the landlord backed off when it became clear that AlterNatives, part of a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Third World workers, wouldn't be able to pay.
Others have been less fortunate. Art galleries and other low-volume enterprises have folded in recent months after having their rents raised. Merchants say that while Carytown seems prosperous - lots of foot traffic, the occasional celebrity sighting and some stores that have been runaway successes - for most retailers the good economy has yet to translate into significant sales gains.
And as rent and other expenses rise, stores that have managed to survive find they're struggling to keep their identities intact against market pressure for "homogenization."
"No one wants to run a Target in Carytown," Blevins says. "But everybody is extending their hours and trying to suck as much as they can out of the turn-up. We have to make pragmatic decisions about what to carry - cheap, high-turnover stuff, because the students will buy it."
Blevins calls it a catch-22: To pay the bills, Carytown retailers need to sell more of the things people can buy elsewhere, which means there is less reason for them to come to Carytown. At AlterNatives, that means less space for the handmade rings and tapestries from the Third World craftsmen the store seeks to support, and more space for the mass-produced, lesser-quality items.
"We would prefer not to sell them because, in a snobbish, fine-art way, we don't like them," he says. "The higher the rents go, the more you're forced to go down in quality and craftsmanship."
It's been a rude lesson in economics for business owners who "thought they were doing it for something more than the bottom line," he says.
Even unabashedly for-profit firms are hurting. "The landlords are putting the squeeze on people and they're going to push us out. It's fast coming," says Arnold Horner, manager of Amazing Pets. He says simple stupid greed is going to kill Carytown's golden geese and leave landlords wondering where the eggs went: "The squeeze is going to squeeze them if they're not careful."
An apparent rise in the number and duration of vacancies attests to the problem, some say.
"There are some vacancies and they're not filling up as fast," says Dr. Alan Toler, a former president of the Carytown Merchants Association. "A lot of merchants do live month to month. It's starting to catch up to us."
Toler and his father, Greg, also a doctor, own their office building and other properties in Carytown. Toler says rents now are "about as high as it can go. These empty buildings may be an indication that it's at its peak."
Not quite, says Court Spotts of property management firm Spotts & Carneal, a neighborhood presence since 1955. The firm manages many if not most of the rental properties in Carytown - "a slew of property," Spotts says, declining to be more specific.
"The rents are, for smaller spaces now, $18 to $22 a square foot, $16 to $18 for larger spaces." That compares to $10 to $12 for most spaces about five years ago, Spotts says. He cites inflation, the good economy and the fact that many business tenants have been buying their buildings, decreasing the amount of rentable space.
Spotts thinks rents probably will continue to rise. Raul Cantu, owner of Nacho Mama's restaurant and current president of the merchants association, agrees. "A lot of the owners probably are getting a little greedy. It is happening, but I hate to say, in general, everybody's doing it, because I don't believe that," he says. "Everybody basically is on an individual lease with the individual owners, so it's hard to say."
In fact, some merchants say they aren't being squeezed by their landlords. Avis Barry of Barry and Associates Massage, who has rented from the Tolers for the past seven years, calls the complaints of some Carytown tenants "a lot of squealing."
Barry, a former commercial real estate agent in Florida, says some retailers simply don't have the business sense or customer base to make it. But she also says that some landlords need to get realistic about what their tenants - and Carytown as a whole - can support. "I know we have lost a lot of good, viable businesses that have been forced out because the landlords have gotten greedy," Barry says.
She's heard tell of owners doubling and even tripling rents in order to push out under-performing firms and make room for more upscale boutiques. "I don't see how we can support too much more upscale than is here. I mean, this is Richmond, for Pete's sake. I know some of the properties here have been vacant for a long time because the landlords are asking too much. I think people have to be realistic. If the landlords here don't get realistic, the success and the growth we've seen here may come to an end."
Barry says she's noticed that smaller spaces rent fast but some larger properties have been vacant for months.
Statistics are hard to come by in studying the shopping district. "It's a unique market unto itself," says Brian Glass, Richmond vice president for Grubb & Ellis, a national commercial real estate firm. Glass says that because of its profusion of small (less than 5,000 square feet) stores, Carytown isn't part of his firm's shopping center studies. And definitions of Carytown - whether or not to include the supermarket centers and strip malls along Thompson Street, for example - vary.
Bill Baxter, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants Association of Greater Richmond, calls Carytown "the signature success story of retailing in Richmond today." But, he says, when higher rents are added to other rising business costs and the difficulties finding employees that other Richmond firms are suffering, "it's a burdensome thing, even though [Carytown] appears to be very successful. That would be my note of caution - don't take traffic flow as always indicative of sales."
Baxter urges landlords to work out reasonable and flexible arrangements with tenants. Some have. Barry says the Tolers have agreed to pay for new store fixtures and improvements if she pays the labor costs. And Delon Newman, owner of Bill's Cleaners, says he has worked out a long-term lease with his landlord that includes an "escalation clause" that ties annual rent increases to inflation via the Consumer Price Index. It guarantees the owner a profit and keeps Newman's rent reasonable and relatively predictable, he says.
For most others, Spotts says rents will continue to rise: "Carytown's continuing to grow and the rental rates are catching up, and I see it continuing as a trend as the buildings are bought up."
But look at it from the landlord's perspective, he says. Carytown properties are selling for about $150 a square foot. Say you buy a smallish, 1,000-square-foot property. With a 20-year loan at 9 percent, that's a monthly mortgage payment of $1,358. Add taxes and insurance, and you need to charge $1,800 a month to break even, Spotts says. And that doesn't include renovations or improvements.
"I see it going more upscale," Spotts says. But not entirely: "Because of Carytown's location and the bohemian atmosphere, you're always going to have the bead shops. That's part of the appeal."
AlterNative's Blevins hopes so. The University of Richmond grad studied Third World development and now finds himself applying those lessons to life in Carytown. It reminds him of the teachings of 19th-century British economist David Ricardo.
"Landowners have always ruled capitalists and labor," Blevins says. "It's one of the essential conflicts in
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