A divided 9th Street

Business owners hopeful, cautious about impact of new development
Mar. 16, 2014 @ 07:47 PM

Sitting across a series of empty tables from a group of patrons gathered near the bar, Charlie’s Pub & Grille owner Mike Cole said there was a time when you couldn’t find a seat at that time in the afternoon on a weekday.

The bar and restaurant opened in 2001 on Ninth Street when “money was flowing” and anyone could get a loan, Cole said. He thought Durham needed a bar like the one in the American TV series “Cheers” for the “average person.”

But business has been down for about five years, Cole said, and sales are off about 40 percent. “It was hard to pay the bills,” Cole said, and to keep the restaurant stocked.

He said the recession, the lack of parking in the Ninth Street area, the closure of George’s Garage across the street and competition for lunch business all have affected his business.

In addition, Cole said, the owner of the building at 758 Ninth St. is looking to raise the rent and to go in a different direction. An owner of the building would not comment.

“Everything is moving down to this end, it’s a destination location,” Cole said, explaining that he believes new Ninth Street-area development and investment is playing a role in his landlord’s decision. Construction is ongoing on new apartments off Ninth. A hotel has opened near the corner of Ninth and Main. A Harris Teeter grocery store is now operating off Ninth, and businesses such as Panera Bread, Tijuana Flats, Pure Barre, and Massage Envy have opened in renovated buildings.

Cole said he was supportive of the new development because of the expected traffic it would bring. He hopes he will be able to find a way to stay open.

“I’m sad,” Cole said. “I love these people. I got the best employees, the best customers, the best landlords.”

The possible closure of Charlie’s isn’t the only change for Ninth Street. Tip-Top Cycles, a new and used bicycle repair and sale shop on Ninth Street that opened in 2011, closed in February.

The owner of Zola Craft Gallery, a handcrafted gifts store that’s been open on Ninth Street since 1995, also said she will close the store if she doesn’t find a buyer. The business is at 626-B Ninth St. above Bruegger’s Bagels.

Owner Jennifer Kahn said she has one young child and is expecting a second. She said she doesn’t feel she can put as much time into the business as it needs. The economy has also played a role.

But she said she’s hopeful for Ninth Street. The developers behind new investment in the area have been “very supportive” of independent businesses, she said.

“They made it clear that’s part of what drew them to the area, and they think it will be a draw for their customers as well,” Kahn said. “In some ways it’s really good.”

Larry Wood, the owner of Ninth Street Flowers, said that if the new development on the western side of the street is successful, he believes developers will eventually buy up buildings on the eastern side.

He said there are a lot of businesses in leased space on that side, where many independent businesses are located. The property owners have owned the buildings for years. Wood owns the building that houses his business and two others

 “I think a lot of the ownership on this side of the street will end up selling out, selling their buildings in time because they’re not interested in investing or modernizing them anymore,” he said. “It’s just part of the life cycle, for lack of a better word, of a business district like this. And the new development across the street really exposes some of the neglect on this side of the street … (we) need somebody who understands the decay and is willing to invest in it.”

Wood said he bought his building in 2003, and is interested in continuing to keep it up, as well as to keep rents at a level that will maintain the “local flavor” on the eastern side.

Another business and property owner on Ninth Street, John Valentine, was supportive of the new investment around Ninth because of the foot traffic it’s expected to bring. He co-owns The Regulator Bookshop and the building that houses the store.

 But he also had concerns about the impact the eastern side of the street, which he said has been a testing ground for small, independent businesses.
Valentine said he expects investment around Ninth to increase property values.

“Everybody sees an opportunity to get a franchise who will pay a fortune to up-fit (the space), and [be] more committed to staying there,” he said. “You just hope people can keep it together and that landlords can take a long view ... it's better to sustain these small businesses in the long run and allow people to manage their spot the way they see fit, rather than seeing a quick turnaround and a quick profit.”