Sunday, January 11, 2009

Don't act so surprised.

For those of you who read me on a regular basis, the column by John Sterns in today's Bulletin may come as a bit of a puzzler.

But hey, I've always been a contrarian, and when he came in looking for me to be all doom and gloomy, I gave him the positives....

I DID say LONG run.

But, yeah, for my store, I'm still in better shape foot traffic wise that I was in the past, and I AM situated right where the new development will help.

Not to underestimate the downturn, but I feel like Pegasus is in a good place.

About the only thing I would've added to the article was what I said straight off: that I thought the next six months were going to be especially tough.

But I don't think it's much of a reach to believe that both Deep and Merenda spaces will be filled.

I should probably say: having occupied storefronts is good, but says nothing about the inherent healthiness of those stores. Just that they are presenting a face to the world, and if they fail, someone else will present another face, and so on. I'm saying that occupied storefronts are good for me and downtown, not necessarily good for those stores. Get the difference?

Because, really, downtown Bend really is about the only place left in Central Oregon, besides Sisters and Sunriver in the summer, that generates significant foot-traffic. (Old Mill? I don't know, never go there except to the movies....)

So, yeah. I'm feeling pretty good about things right now. If my new lease isn't outrageous, we should get through this O.K.

It helps that my wife's store, the Bookmark, is doing well and I feel protected on the flanks. And for the first time, I have a bit of cash flow reserves, and lots and lots of experience with slowdowns.

In a way, my store was designed for just this situation, because I was so damn gunshy from past crashes. I may not make as much money during boom times, but I feel more insulated in downtimes.

You have to understand that my perspective is going to be different from anyone else's, because I went through a time when 40% of my 'gross' profits went toward debt. (I don't know, maybe 60% of 'income?' Whatever it was, any financial expert would have proclaimed me toast, but I just hunkered down.)

It won't ever get that bad again -- or I, and everyone else -- will be in the same boat, and I'll be trading comics for food.

The guys over at BB2 will be after my head.

So I'm going to duck and run away.

Downtown Bend: Trying to keep it all in perspective

By John Stearns, business editor, / The Bulletin

Walk around downtown Bend these days and it’s easy to feel alarmed about the health of Bend’s heart, not to mention the overall patient.

It’s the locked doors and darkened interiors of spaces that once held businesses like Merenda, Deep, Volo, BluTeal, The Paper Place and others. In the case of Merenda, the sidewalk dining on warm evenings and the bustling, albeit often noisy, interior emanated energy and a sense of Bend coolness.

But with the significant deflation of Bend’s housing market, mounting job losses, a national recession and badly shaken consumer confidence, the trickledown effect is claiming visible victims not just downtown, but all over.

It’s downtown, however, that often gets the most attention. It’s where people like to eat, imbibe, shop, watch a parade, attend a festival or just stroll. Perhaps it’s that focus from locals and visitors that makes the closures feel more symbolic, more worrisome — especially with the recession expected to hold and possibly tighten its grip through at least mid-2009.

But surprising as it may seem, a few businesses I spoke with aren’t panicking. They’re trying to operate leaner and smarter, be positive and ride out the quake.

Duncan McGeary, who bought Pegasus Books 25 years ago, has seen the ups, downs and in-betweens and has a long-term perspective that’s important when others might be inclined to cry that the sky is falling.

“I still get way more foot traffic than I used to get,” McGeary said of renovations and additions around his Minnesota Avenue store over the years that have landed him in the middle of a more vibrant city center. “So I actually am pretty positive about the long-term future of this area.”

Why not? The nearby Oxford Hotel, expected to be completed later this year, will deposit more people onto the streets, as will the new Putnam Pointe apartment/condominium complex behind the hotel. A new Bend-based bank, Crown Point, is forming and is remodeling the old Washington Mutual building on the corner of Bond and Oregon. A Subway sandwiches shop and Sisters Coffee Co. are opening a shared site. And you’ve got to believe the Merenda, Deep and Volo sites will generate ample interest. Their locations are too good. Even in very trying 2008, new businesses like Ciao Mambo and Bend Burger Co. quickly replaced Hans and Bluefish Bistro, for example.

For McGeary, the winter and spring months are always the toughest, but with careful business management, he expects to be OK. And he doubts key store and restaurant sites will go unfilled.

“Wall Street is a great location,” he said. “If you were going to start a business and you wanted foot traffic, where would you go?”

That’s exactly what Manoah Boutard, owner of The Goldsmith, was thinking when he opened his jewelry store on Wall Street on Dec. 5. It’s his second location, after Redmond.

“Downtown Bend is where foot traffic is and always will be,” Boutard said. Many of his customers drove to his Redmond store, so he decided the time was right to grab an opening downtown and move closer to them. He confidently signed his name to a long-term lease.

“You fight or you don’t fight,” he said. “If you want to throw in the towel, that’s fine.”

Dianne Bernert, owner of Kitchen Complements, also has a 25-year résumé downtown and says this recession feels especially bad, but she’s quick to point out that it’s ravaging the country, not just Central Oregon. That doesn’t dull the pain, though, of seeing neighbors close, she said, pointing across Minnesota Avenue to the recently silenced Merenda.

“It bothers me to see this happening, especially to our good restaurants — we need those restaurants,” she said. They, and stores like BluTeal, were draws and what tourists come back for, she added.

It’s possible more will close, said Darren Powderly, broker with Compass Commercial Real Estate Services.

As painful as they are, though, closures also create opportunities, he said. The next person coming in who is risk-tolerant and has a good plan often can buy at a discount and take advantage of improvements already made to the space, he said. That buyer hopefully has a better chance of survival long term.

Those on the ground now, though, like Bernert, are focusing on their strengths, being positive, serving customers the way larger stores can’t and encouraging locals to shop downtown.

McGeary tried to keep the economic landscape in perspective.

“Most people still have jobs,” he said.

True. While things could get worse before they get better, new businesses and opportunities will emerge … eventually.

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