Business occupancy remains at 80 percent in downtown Marietta

Photo by Janelle Patterson The River City Antique Emporium sits vacant between other Second Street shops in Marietta.

MARIETTA — Of the 334 available business fronts in downtown Marietta, the average occupancy has rested just above 80 percent over the past few years.

“I don’t think it’s as doom and gloom as people talk about,” said Marietta Development Director Andy Coleman. “I’m seeing different stores filling the storefronts but we’ve pretty consistently remained over 80 percent occupancy and well under a 20 percent vacancy rate.”

While large buildings remain vacant like the River City Antique Emporium on Second Street, the old Tractor Supply Company in the Lafayette Plaza, the Framing Gallery on Front Street and the recently closed Food 4 Less, others like the old Movie Gallery next to Qdoba have seen new life as a flooring company and the old Ryan’s restaurant on Pike Street will soon emerge as a new Mexican restaurant. Earlier this spring, a new location of the Washington County Public Library opened in the former Advantage Bank location in the Lafayette Plaza.

Coleman said while he’s in the process of updating the city’s downtown inventory to be completed by July, the last inventory from 2015 showed vacancy at 48 business fronts, or 14.4 percent of the available spaces.

But talk to other business and real estate owners in town and the plight of high flood insurance rates, the rigmarole for permitting to open a business in the city and the lack of solid business plans by budding entrepreneurs can lead to high turnover whether one is on Front Street or in a shopping plaza.

“Not a lot of people who want to open a shop downtown come in with a prepared business plan,” said Dan Jones, a broker for multiple properties with Berkshire Hathaway. “They haven’t done the research on total expenses until after they’re seeing how much they have to sell to just make the rent.”

Southeastern Ohio Port Authority Director Jim Black said the challenge has also come from an increased competition with online ordering.

“It’s really changing the dynamic of how people are shopping,” he said. “And parking downtown can be a challenge. People don’t mind walking but it needs to be within a reasonable distance of where you want to go otherwise it’s easier to get what you want online.”

Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Ankrom said half the challenge is staying ahead of the newest trends, and the other half relies on effective marketing and utilization of social media, online sales and providing convenience to consumers.

“People have these great ideas for businesses but really need to be prepared for the big picture. It’s like those planning for a wedding, you have to be ready for the marriage, not just the big day,” she explained. “We want businesses like Schafer Leather who will stick around, staying ahead of trends and having a plan to be here for more than a year.”

She said the downtown businesses that have thrived are the ones that rely on more than just walk-in retail.

“They’re thinking outside the box, using Etsy, sponsoring events, it’s all about flexible marketing,” she explained. “We need to make Marietta’s downtown a one-stop shop, a place where you can get clothes for the whole family, get your fresh local veggies and grab a dinner or drink.”

Ankrom also said businesses along the Pike and in places like the Lafayette Plaza and Kroger Shopping Center are growing.

“The challenge is getting seen, they have great locations and we even have a new member out in the Kroger complex: Steel City Supplements,” she said.

Tiffany Craven, who works at the chamber, said she would like to see a shoe store downtown. “Who doesn’t love shoes, and maybe another women’s clothes store with it or a men’s clothes store.”

John Lehman, owner of Promanco and Alliance Industries, said merchants and entrepreneurs “need to be more fleet of foot and fleet of mind” in order to compete with the ease of Internet shopping.

“You’ve got to be able to dodge Amazon Prime with not only a unique product but with the service component to entice people to darken your doorstep,” said Lehman. “But we also need the leadership that city council and much of the city administration doesn’t give, aside from Mayor Joe Matthews who works his tail off to introduce himself to new and prospective business owners.”

Lehman proposed the formation of an ad-hoc advisory group to aid struggling businesses and new entrepreneurs wishing to establish themselves in Marietta, which Ankrom said is one of the long-term goals of the Building Bridges to Careers Epicenter.

Bryan Waller, founder and owner of JaniSource, suggested the city provide a permit ambassador, a person who would be at the ready to walk a prospective entrepreneur or new owner in town through all of the city requirements when starting a business in town.

“We need more engineering firms and bio-tech firms setting up offices downtown, and we need arts mixed with technology and a butcher shop,” he said. “But most of all we need our city’s representative to be more business friendly and offering tax breaks and packages to entice businesses to come here. When someone buys a building here there needs to be someone jumping up at the door asking how we can help you succeed.”

Bill Taylor, general manager for Promanco, took a different stance.

“We don’t need more businesses in Marietta yet, we first need more support of the downtown,” he said. “We need the town to come and support what we have if we want to entice anyone to come in and fill these spaces with their offices or their new stores.”