By LESLIE EIKLEBERRY
While the city’s streetscape project, once it is completed, has been touted as a benefit for downtown Salina, what tends to be ignored is the effect that the major construction project currently is having on merchants in the area.
Despite the multiple parking lots, many shoppers are avoiding downtown stores because parking is at a minimum along Santa Fe and adjoining side streets. The merchants’ struggle forced one boutique owner to take to social media.
Valerie Linenberger, owner of True Betty Boutique, 108 N. Santa Fe, wrote the following on her Facebook March 27:
Hello, Facebook Friends! I wanted to share with you a little bit of information before it’s too late. It’s no secret Downtown Salina has been hurting. The construction project is going to be fantastic when it’s over, but that isn’t expected for at least another year. As a result, downtown business owners are contemplating closing their businesses due to lack of sales. This is going on RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Unfortunately our customers are avoiding coming to see us, even though we have ample parking behind our businesses and we are selling nearly our entire inventory at cost or less. Now more than ever, Downtown businesses need your support to continue offering unique shopping experiences and fun, free events. Most businesses are down 50-75%. At this point, we are struggling to keep our lights on. I know it’s fun and easy to shop with online businesses, but if you want to continue having a place to try on clothes any day of the week, walk into a flower shop that’s been operating for over 50 years, purchase a unique gift for a friend’s birthday, sample unique flavors from local restaurants and chefs, or decorate your home, we need your help. If deliberate action isn’t taken soon, Downtown Salina will be full of big box chain vendors and corporations in other states will be taking your money with them.
Please keep Downtown Salina LOCAL! We’re raising our families with you, donating to your causes, and doing business with the companies you work for. Please ♥️ and SHARE this post to start a Downtown Support Revolution! Thank you for your support!
Linenberger said she made the post because she wanted people to know just how dire the situation is for a number of downtown merchants.
“There are so many times in Salina that a store will go out of business and nobody knew ahead of time that they were struggling and so I wanted to make sure that, you know, that wasn’t the case with downtown Salina. That people knew what was going on and if they wanted to save our downtown with independent businesses that they would have an opportunity to do that before we swallow that last gulp of air,” she said.
Linenberger said the reaction to her post has been favorable.
“Most people had no idea how badly it was affecting downtown businesses,” she said.
For Laura Underwood at Laura’s Antiques, 109 S. Santa Fe, the situation is critical.
“I would say that we’re doing about a third of the business that we were doing two years ago. Hopefully it will get better for us when they are done in front of us, because that’s really killed us,” Underwood said. “This block really got hurt last year when they started the block south of us because they closed the northbound lane and people did not understand the detour directions and so in this block, our downward spiral started a year ago. I don’t think a lot of people realize how badly that hurt us.”
Peggy DeBay, who owns the Flower Nook with her husband, Wayne, said the construction has affected their business.
“The Flower Nook, like my fellow merchants, has felt the pinch of customers avoiding the downtown area,” DeBay noted. “We spent four months with a mess in front of the shop where customers could not park. Now, even though the construction has moved down the street, it still affects the consumer from wanting to make the effort to find a way down Iron Ave.”
PB&J owner Chrisi Pierson noted that she, too, is seeing the effect of the construction.
“Construction has definitely started to affect our customers in that they must be more creative and flexible finding parking spots,” Pierson told Salina Post. “We have customers asking all the time about the overall improvement plans and how things will look once construction is completed. Generally speaking, our customers are excited for the end result but definitely a bit more hesitant to venture downtown due to the construction, lack of parking and confusion at certain intersections.”
Karie Bogart of Flipping Fabulous said she and her partner, Lisa Holmes, have already decided that they will remain open through the construction.
“We are invested in a vibrant community, and believe in the 2020 downtown vision so much we have opted to weather the construction storm! In short, we hate the way we know the construction affects downtown shoppers, but we know it’s necessary,” Bogart told Salina Post.
Because of the downturn in customer traffic, downtown merchants are trying a number of ways to encourage customers to shop downtown despite the construction.
“Social media posts definitely help,” Linenberger said. “As merchants we get an inundated every day with somebody wanting us to advertise on their platform and you know right now downtown businesses don’t have an extra dollar to go to a new advertising outlet or platform.”
So what do merchants do? According to Linenberger, they get creative.
Linenberger said Salina Arts and Humanities has grants available for an entertainment for First Fridays and Salina Downtown, Inc. has recently re-allocated some of its advertising budget for grants for entertainment downtown so that merchants can host events. Linenberger utilized both recently when she had Bootleg Mercy play in concert in front of True Betty Boutique for the April First Friday event.
“It was awesome I had lots of people who didn’t know about my store and come in and check things out. There were folks at Big Nose Kate’s that we’re hanging out on their balcony and at Johnny Rottens. It was just was so nice to hear music,” she said.
“I believe in our first Friday Art walk. I think it’s a great time to show some neat artists and art through either music or painting or ceramics or other types of medium. I think what brings people to different neighborhoods or even downtown is food, music, and festivals and so I think it’s important for us to create events and good times for you people to come and check it out and trying to keep those things free,” Linenberger added.
True Betty Boutique also has been host to Wine Wednesday on the first Wednesday of the month, however the April event was pushed back a week because of tax season, Linenberger said. Additionally, Linenberger said she was working with other downtown merchants to establish the first Tuesday of each month as a special day for senior citizens.
“We are having specials and sales, coming up with shopping contests, giving away sample items, and posting on social media more frequently in order to keep customers informed and show them that coming downtown is worth the effort due to the amazing things we have in inventory and on order for the spring and summer seasons,” Pierson said of PB&J.
“We also are going to try to post updates highlighting the work crew, the crazy equipment they use, and the progress we are seeing on the streetscape — showing our customers that the construction isn’t all bad and that coming downtown during all of this is a way they can engage in the process and see their hard-earned tax dollars at work,”Pierson added.
Finding the back door
A number of merchants have upgraded their back door entrances with signage, flags, and other sorts of decorations so that customers can find them from the city parking lots.
“Since I opened my store and I knew that the streetscape project was coming, I have trained my customers that we have a back door that is always available,” Linenberger said. “I have a big banner out there so they can see were my store is and a sign on the door.”
While many of the merchants do have customer-friendly back entrances, the ones who don’t often receive a helping hand from those who do.
“We don’t have a back entrance for customers, so for us, the construction will be a little more challenging than most. Maureen at Eccentricity is amazing, and has let us put signage on our back door for our customers to enter through her store,” Bogart noted. “Eccentricity has generously allowed us to utilize their back entrance, which provides a covered entrance into Flipping Fabulous.”
Underwood said that while Laura’s Antiques does have a customer-friendly back door, people don’t tend to want to park on Fifth Street.
“I’m not sure that a lot of them understand we put our names on the back door so people can find us,” Underwood said. “I think they think they’re gonna come back here to see this mass of back doors and not know where they’re going, but I don’t care if they come in my back door to go to the Market Shop even though he’s got a back door. We don’t care. We just want people to come downtown.”
Places to park
A number of city parking lots exist along Seventh and Fifth streets, and are just a short walk away from the back entrances to the Santa Fe businesses.
Several downtown merchants have taken to social media with postings of satellite map images of their locations to show where the off-street parking lots are located behind their shops.
“On Monday, when all the businesses were caught off guard with Iron and the north 100 block closing, the businesses really rallied together and copied Jim at Market Shop with his Google Earth imagery. We had so many people share that post, with no other intent but to see downtown businesses do well,” Bogart said.
Linenberger said she parks across the street along Fifth Street to help save the closer parking spaces in the city lot behind True Betty Boutique for customers of the downtown businesses.
“One of the most challenging things is trying to get business owners and employees not to park in the lot,” Linenberger said. “I can leave those spaces for customers and if they’re not my customers, they’re customers of one of the other merchants. So I try to be a good neighbor and it would really help if the other merchants would train their employees to do the same.”
Linenberger had this advice for potential customers:
“There are a lot of people that are rediscovering downtown. People who haven’t have been here for quite a while. Most people are kind of blown away at the number of the things that are available downtown, so we don’t let the construction scare you because there is parking on Fifth Street and Seventh Street. And especially with this nice weather why not add a little walk to your day? Your Fitbit will thank you!”
Pierson said she has many great memories from her childhood of being downtown with her parents. She also, noted, however that change is good.
“We are trying to remain positive and upbeat and really do see this as an opportunity in the long run. However, we do need their (customers’) support during what is sure to be a trying time for all downtown businesses,” Pierson said.