People love Downtown West Palm Beach. The city’s brightest and most colorful lights bounce off the picturesque waterfront, and every day droves of people walk the streets of this world-class destination with many things to do. And yet…for all the downtown fever, it’s not hard to find an empty storefront.
Just recently, we have seen a number of businesses close shop on Clematis Street. The street is an extremely desirable place to be, though it is going through its natural ebb and flow of businesses. Bar Louie, Tin Fish, Liberty Bookstore, Los Paceros Columbian Restaurant and World of Beer closed within months of each other. But just ask anyone walking down Clematis Street’s sidewalks as to why they are attracted to it and chances are you’ll hear: “It’s where it’s at.”
So, what’s the problem? More than CityPlace, another downtown entertainment hub that has seen its share of business losses, this historical street emits the city’s cool vibe. Clearly, there is no shortage of flavors on Clematis, and depending upon where you go on the street, the distances can be from 1.1 to 1.5 miles, as the international blend found on this highly popular and lively street starts on S. Quadrille and goes east to Flagler Drive on the Intracoastal Waterway.
I remember back in 1974, when my family moved to West Palm Beach, and my uncle wanted to show us the downtown area. It was a ghost town. Not a soul was walking around. Burdines department store was one of the few places to go and shop. Much has changed since then, mainly on Clematis Street, my favorite street in town. Now, for businesses finding a unique spot in the heart of the city is like hitting the jackpot. But like in any city, anything that comes with a prime location is attached to a high price. Which is why when businesses suddenly put up a “Closing Soon” sign on their doors, customers and bystanders readily conclude that this was just another businessman with a passion and a battle between high expectations and high rising rents type of story.
The truth is that as customers change and the business environment changes, a business that is able to continue to offer quality products and services will be able to survive, even on Clematis Street, whose average rent is approximately $35 per square foot, with extra expenses for real estate taxes, maintenance and insurance fees.
“Clematis Street commands a high premium because it is a premium street,” explained Chris Roog, Director of Economic Development for the City of West Palm Beach. “A business really needs to be sure about its business model, and that also needs to be maintained.” As Roog noted, Clematis Street, and the rest of Downtown West Palm Beach, are going through a transition for the better. One only needs to look at the opportunities that people are creating here, with more residential, the new train station, and hotels, to see the big picture. “It is very apparent that we are moving in the right direction, as the city is investing $170 million in infrastructure. All of those type of things point to the direction that the central business, Clematis Street and the city, are really doing well and that is going to be felt for the foreseeable future.”
Though we have seen more than a dozen business close shop since December 2016, according to Roog, there’s not a single bullet issue for those closings. To learn the reasons, one would have to look at each business, case by case, to understand why that business closed. Like in the case of Liberty Bookstore.
“Liberty Bookstore was owned by a man for five years,” said William Cummings, a realtor who specializes in commercial properties in downtown West Palm Beach. “He decided to go on a different venture somewhere else, and that space is now being considered by other prospective tenants.” Cummings is presently proposing two specific businesses for that spot, but he’s not able to speak about them at this time because he is still negotiating those applications with the landlord. According to him, those vacant spaces fill quite well and he sees a longterm good market on Clematis Street and downtown as a whole.
The Word on Retail
In a growing city there will always be change because of the open market place and competition. Gracie Street, an interior design company located on 201 Narcissus Avenue, just around the corner from Datura Street, has seen businesses, particularly on Clematis Street, come and go, but they are not going anywhere. “We have been in the downtown area for 15 years and we love the downtown community,” said Sally Chase, merchandise and store manager. “It is great to be in a city where you can do business and walk to have lunch somewhere, instead of having to get on a car.”
Chase recognizes there’s a decline in retail, but that’s not exclusive to Clematis Street, or to downtown West Palm Beach, but to cities everywhere. Retail, in general, is going through some growing pains since online shopping began to swoop shoppers, one by one, from right under their brick-and-mortar counterparts. There isn’t a store in the entire world that hasn’t felt the sudden zoom, nor can they match the timeless online shopping spree customers experience right from the comfort of their couch while still in their pajamas, and have it delivered to their house the next day!
For the most part, consumers who shop online versus brick-and-mortar stores do so not because they expect to find lower prices, but product selection and speedy service. That’s not to say that shoppers are not looking at price tags; on the contrary, they’re matching the best prices with the best quality, and bonus…Free Shipping! An online shopper’s favorite two words.
However, there is something that online shopping cannot offer, and that’s the ambiance, better known as the “Wow” shopping experience. This is what downtown stores like Gracie Street offers, and cannot be equaled by online shopping. This includes store employees like Chase who are polite, friendly, genuinely caring and interested in helping her customers to find products, checking stock for variety, and providing unexpected product quality.
There are some new shops opening on North Dixie and South Olive Streets, hoping to bring back that “wow” factor to the retail area that clients search for while visiting the downtown area.
“What I’ve seen go the most are the dining businesses,” said Chase, who has seen a steady of restaurant changes on Clematis Street. Bar Louie, for one. Now, that’s a conundrum because this restaurant was situated in a central location. So, it couldn’t have been the environment.There was something else going on there that forced this bar to close its doors.
Could it have been the homeless people in the area?
The idea of homelessness is a nationwide issue. Every city in the country is dealing with it. So that can’t be the reason that is causing some businesses to close on Clematis Street. “I think businesses close because of business issues,” said Roog. “You can also point at shops that are vacant, or great successes on Clematis Street as well.”
Lynora’s Italian Restaurant is one of those great success stories that Roog is talking about. And though the restaurant industry is a tough industry, this little mediterranean oasis with traditional recipes has been doing well on Clematis Street for the past three years. “Restaurants typically don’t last three years in one location,” admitted Mike Jameson, Lynora’s general manager. “It’s hard to go through that stretch. Once you have passed that three-year mark, you are considered to be a well-established restaurant.”
Though the rents may be higher than other parts of town, the more reason to shake things a bit. “If your rent is high, you have to have a high clientele—a big following to keep your business alive,” said Jameson. “If you have a big following then you will do fine on Clematis. If not, then you probably have to look elsewhere.”
In the last three years, Jameson has seen an increase in clientele follow-up and that’s not just because their entrees and desserts are delicious. Lynora’s also has free-flowing cocktails and their service is fast and beyond courteous.
New Tenants Moving In
While we have seen some businesses go, there are a number of businesses waiting to move in to the downtown area, particularly to Clematis Street. And this is perhaps, the best part of this story. You wouldn’t have the investment of 1000 residential units in the city of West Palm Beach if it was not a great city, and Clematis Street and the rest of the downtown area is part of that.
There are major businesses that are in the building permit process right now that are looking to open up in downtown relatively soon. And that goes from Narcissus to Clematis on the 500 block. There’s also this care going on with the landowners and the property owners that perhaps people don’t know about.
They [landowners] are looking at the vitality and viability of Clematis Street, from the sense that they know that this is a great location and they are going to take their time really understanding a tenant that they are going to do business with. They want someone who’s going to be there for the long haul, and will build a higher quality product or service for the overall quality of the entire street.
The Bar Louie location is the perfect example of this, explained Roog. The landowners are looking to find the right tenant, and they have a good grasp of what they think that tenant is. And as they are going through applications, not only are they looking out for their unique space, but they are also looking out for the city from that approach.
Downtown West Palm Beach, specifically Clematis Street, will continue to be a place that businesses prefer to locate. And it will also command some of the higher rents in the city, but that is because it is one of America’s great streets.
The Downtown Fever
If the local people and businesses love our downtown area and are investing in it, imagine when our neighboring cities—Fort Lauderdale and Miami—are connected to it through one rail system. Reportedly, Brightline, with its two locomotives and four rail cars will be shuttling passengers between West Palm Beach and Miami sometime this summer. What does that entail for our high energy downtown businesses?
Well, let’s look at it this way. In the city of Miami alone, there are more than 100,000 people. West Palm Beach also has over 100,000 people, and Fort Lauderdale’s numbers come very close to that. While the impact of having the three major train stations with visitors coming in and out on a daily basis is unknown, the implications of steady visitor traffic coming into our downtown area presents a positive result for the entire region of southeast Florida. This kind of downtown fever is one that people will want to catch.