| 2013 Winter | story by DEREK HELMS | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
Downtown Lawrence is the retail and economic center of the city. Traffic is slow as consumers and clients park and cross the street and poke their heads in windows. The hustle and bustle of pedestrians is a store owners’ dream. Though Massachusetts Street attracts the crowds, businesses just off Mass also clamor for business.
Ken Baker, owner of Pachamamas, knows the draw of working downtown. The chef and restaurateur successfully operated his restaurant in West Lawrence for years. Business was good, but something was missing. His restaurant on the south end of Quail Creek Drive was “tucked away” and, for some, hard to find.
“You can only work out in the woods for so long,” Baker says. “We were in an out-of-the-way location and that really made eating at our place a destination. I knew I wanted to get downtown. I like the idea of eating dinner being an event, and that location supported that, but I knew I wanted more traffic.”
Baker bought and refurbished his building on the corner of 9th and New Hampshire in 2006. After the move, the change in traffic was felt immediately.
“We’re not a destination anymore,” Baker says. “In the old location, we had almost no walk-in traffic. At this intersection, walk-in business is a significant part of each meal service.”
Still, Baker says, business isn’t what it could be, had he located one block west.
“I’ll look out our big windows and see 30 people cross the intersection on Mass,” he explains. “In that time, maybe one person will pass in front of our building. That said, I think we are in a great location. If I had opened a place on Mass, I would have had to completely re-think my business plan. Here, our event room is a big part of business. I don’t think that would have been possible on Mass Street.”
That longing for more traffic is echoed by Julie Kingsbury, owner of Jewelry by Julie. Her shop on 9th street between Massachusetts and Vermont sits between two “anchors” of downtown: Weavers and Wheatfields. Kingsbury says she and her neighbors sometimes feel overlooked.
“I’ll have someone stop in and say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen your shop before. Are you new?’ I’ll laugh and explain that, no, I’ve been here for 9 years,” she says. “Something about not being directly on Mass makes people pay less attention, I think.”
When Kingsbury opened her shop, where she sells original jewelry pieces, she knew she wanted to be downtown, and being just off Mass has actually been a blessing.
“I’ve loved downtown Lawrence since I was in high school in Topeka,” she says. “To me it has always been the center of the city. Being downtown, but on a side street, really has been great,” she explains. “My rent here is about half of what it would be if I had a storefront on Massachusetts. I’ve looked a few times at moving, but the amount my overhead would increase with rent and needing more inventory to fill a larger space just didn’t make sense for my business.”
Kingsbury says she’ll often step outside on a slow day and look east, to Mass Street, and see crowds of people walking. She says having that foot traffic in front of her store would be great, but paying the rent for a storefront is unreasonable for her.
“My neighbors and I talk about how we can get more traffic on the side streets,” she says. “I’m excited about what Downtown Lawrence Inc. will be doing. I think that will help.”
Sally Zogry, Director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., says getting more traffic to all of downtown is her number one priority.
“We are working very hard to increase traffic to downtown Lawrence,” Zogry says. “And by downtown, I mean all of downtown. Not just Massachusetts Street.”
In her role as DLI Director, Zogry says she is challenged to satisfy the needs of all downtown businesses.
“I understand some businesses not directly on Mass Street might get frustrated with the concentration of events and promotions on the main street,” Zogry says. “But I’m also confident they will be pleased with some of the changes and events and promotions we have planned. Again, we want all of downtown to thrive, not just businesses with storefronts on Mass Street.”
Attracting people to downtown, but to stopping then from looking directly on Mass Street is a challenge Meredith Moore faces every day. Moore, co-owner of the Wonder Fair Gallery, wants people to get a little more adventurous.
“We tend to attract customers that are a bit more adventurous,” she says. “I mean in order to get to our space you need a sense of adventure to get up the steps.”
The steep steps from the door just south of The Burger Stand lead to an open and airy space. The gallery, which is full of original art and design works by local and regional artists, overlooks Mass Street. The gallery opened in 2008 in the basement of what is now The Burger Stand. In 2010, when the restaurant opened, they moved from the basement to the penthouse, kind of.
“The space we were in was developed into a bar for The Burger Stand,” Moore says. “So we moved on up to the second floor.”
Moore says she loves the space, but it presents unique challenges.
“The natural light from our windows is beautiful,” she says. “And I really think the space we have is perfect. We have one of the prettiest shops in town. But getting people to take the trip up the steps is a challenge. I’ll hear people open the door and say ‘Oh, we’re not going up those.’ That is disappointing, but when people do walk up the first time, the overwhelming reaction is ‘Wow. This place is so great!’ In a way, those steps help weed out people that may not be as interested in our products. We’ve had to find a way to get people to window shop when they can’t look in our windows.”
About a year ago, Moore started putting a wooden boat sign on the sidewalk outside their door, directing passersby into the shop. The response was almost immediate.
“That sign has increased our walk-in business significantly,” she says. “I think it helps introduce the gallery to people who may not know what we do. We have an adventurous spirit, and the boat on the sea represents that well.”
Like Baker and Kingsbury, Moore says she’s looked into storefronts on Massachusetts Street, but has yet to pull the trigger.
“Changing business locations would cause us to create a different business environment,” she says. “We work hard to serve our artists and our customers well. If we have to dramatically increase our overhead, we may have to change some of our operating beliefs.”
The number one rule in real estate is location. For Lawrence businesses, that has traditionally meant a storefront on Massachusetts Street. As the city grows, additional industries are finding their way to downtown Lawrence. Business models have adjusted to factor in the downtown exposure while planning for a limited amount of foot traffic. With a little creativity, businesses are flourishing just off Mass.■