Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Business conditions improve on Elmwood

By I’Jaz Eberhardt and Dylan Sleight
Buffalo Review West Reporters
At a glance, one could understand why the Elmwood Village is often hailed as one of Buffalo’s hippest districts: an eclectic street lined with colorful storefronts, lively murals and A mix of visitors and residents can be seen on any given day.
In fact, it may be hard to believe that just a year ago, a visitor walking down Elmwood Avenue could see over 30 vacant storefronts in the same areas that appear vital and prosperous today.
This was indeed the case according to Ashley Smith, executive director of the Elmwood Village Association, who explained that the 17 percent vacancy rate in 2018 was nearly double the acceptable rate for a business district.
She praised the community’s efforts, however, to aid in Elmwood’s resurgence, noting improved communications among association business owners and residents.
 “I think we’re entering a new period for both this organization and the neighborhood with a different level of engagement,” she said.
The community has worked to address this issue within the past year by identifying several contributing factors to the village’s turnover and vacancy rates. The decline of brick and mortar stores on Elmwood mirrored the national scope of retail.
Data from Coresight Research shows that 2019 store closures are already predicted to exceed those of 2018. Within the past year, the nation has seen the demise of popular retailers like Toys “R” Us, Payless ShoeSource and Bon-Ton.
Online shopping has been significant in the market shift. Ten percent more people are likely to prefer shopping online than in-store for reasons such as special deals, product comparability and saving time, according to GoodFirms survey findings.

Ashley Smith, on the cost of doing business on Elmwood Avenue:

Smith explains that Elmwood business owners are finding ways to adapt to the digital shift.
“We’re seeing a lot more of our boutiques making sure they have online stores because even beyond that broader market, there are folks in the neighborhood who are shopping online versus necessarily going into the store,” she said.
An issue that has specifically impacted the Elmwood Village, however, is the move of Women and Children’s Hospital from 219 Bryant St. in 2016.
“I think the businesses there have felt the impact of Children’s Hospital closing,” said Buffalo Council Member Joel Feroleto. “When the hospital was there, you had hundreds of employees there that were in the area that would support businesses in the area.”
Another problem unique to Elmwood establishments, Feroleto explained, was a lack of representation.
“At the time, the Elmwood Village Association did not have any small business owners on their board of directors, so [the association] decided to step up,” he said.
In addition to securing positions on the Elmwood Village Association board, about 50 business owners formed their own alliance called Elmwood Strip. The organization puts faces and stories to the storefronts to familiarize visitors with business owners, many of who are natives to the area, Smith noted.
Cindi Thomason, senior business advisor at the SUNY Buffalo State Small Business Development Center, believes there could be larger issues that are pushing the economic climate of the Elmwood Village to its current predicament.
“A lot of it comes down to the property development types that bought a lot of the property on Elmwood,” Thomason said. “This is when it was getting pretty popular. It was really a lot more than a lot of small businesses could afford.”
            She attributed rent spikes and seasonal decreases in foot traffic as threats to Elmwood businesses.
            Thomason cited dining as another area of business that had been affected, but she insists that shops and boutiques are still at the forefront of the larger issue.
“A lot of people think restaurants are the hardest businesses, but I really think basic retail, right now, is the hardest business,” Thomason said.
            Feroleto noted that the Elmwood Village Association has been working to identify the types of businesses that would be supported in the area based on community need and square footage, a process he describes as “proactive” instead of “reactive.” A growing public art scene, funding through state grants and private investments, and events organized by the Elmwood Strip are other factors he contributes to Elmwood’s regeneration.
            “I’m very happy with what’s been happening on Elmwood,” he said. “There have been nine new businesses that have opened or announced openings recently.”
            With events like the holiday tree lighting and a three-day Oktoberfest celebration last year, Feroleto believes Elmwood’s businesses will continue to encourage community involvement, which will, in turn, boost retail.