Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Vacant Stores Give Ojai Empty Feeling

Recent closures lead to concerns about stability of retail economy

By Nao Braverman
The weekend traffic in downtown Ojai is proof enough that the small city is still a popular getaway. But where are all these tourists shopping? Not in Ojai, or at least not enough.
The abandoned storefronts speak for themselves.
“What you are seeing is a reflection of the economy,” said Ernie Salomon, owner of the Matilija Plaza Group, which includes two commercial vacancies in the Arcade. “From what I have heard a lot of businesses are having a hard time in Ojai. Gas is heading to $4 a gallon. People are not out to buy jewelry when they can’t buy bread.”
As visitors get off the freeway they are greeted by two abandoned gas stations on their way to Ojai’s center. After hitting a decrepit cement block structure next to the Skate Park, which has remained unoccupied for years, tourists pass the vacant space where Jim and Rob’s Fresh Grill used to be. A little farther down is the old bowling alley, empty for years, warding off passersby with a chain link fence.
While the Arcade storefronts facing Ojai Avenue are fully occupied, the strip that faces Matilija Street has taken on a glassy-eyed vacant stare.
Of the 140,204 square feet in the Arcade Plaza district, the block of commercial buildings sandwiched by Ojai Avenue, Matilija Street, Signal Street and Montgomery Street, about 8,779 square feet are currently up for lease.
That includes the former Iron Pan Bistro, which has housed several eateries that have failed successively, the large space right next door, which used to house Ojai Sports, an office space upstairs from Radio Shack next to Cornerstone Architects, the former homebase of Linda.com, and the space next to Java & Joe’s that narrowly escaped becoming a Subway sandwich shop.
Some of the longtime commercial vacancies have been leased or purchased. The abandoned Ford dealership, also at the city’s entryway, was sold to the Crown Family, owners of the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, to protect the space for unsightly development. The newer of the two vacant buildings is being rented out to various companies to host business conventions.
Salomon said that he had a tenant lined up for the property that was to house Subway, and that he was deciding between two tenants interested in the former Linda.com space. He was not ready to reveal any information about the prospects, however.
As soon as The Hub, the bar vacant for some time right in the center of downtown, was finally remodeled and opened again by new owners, vacancies popped up elsewhere in town. The space that recently housed Campsite, in the new shopping center at the corner of Ojai Avenue and CaƱada Street is already gone, soon to be replaced by another business, according to property owner Ron Polito. But the quick turnover rates for commercial properties are clear evidence of how local merchants are struggling.
The year-end budget review revealed that sales tax revenues were indeed coming in less than expected. The May issue of the Ojai Business Journal, published by the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, showed that between Nov. 12, 2007 and Feb. 14 of this year, the city collected $191,999 in sales tax revenue — an 11 percent decline from the same period a year ago, which represents about $2 million less in total taxable sales for local merchants over that three-month period.
City manager Jere Kersnar said that some citizens have expressed the concern that Ojai is overbuilt, but he wasn’t sure that was the crux of the problem.
Salomon attributed the vacancies to nationwide economic woes. But Polito said he thought it was an issue more specific to Ojai. He said that local merchants weren’t sure if they were catering to residents or tourists, and this posed a challenge to business owners who weren’t sure who to market to.
“Ojai has not defined itself,” he said. “Are we a tourist community or are we a homegrown bedroom community that supports itself? Right now we are not either of the two.”
According to Polito. Ojai is not developed enough to cater to really wealthy tourists, or at least to survive off of tourism. Yet it also does not provide an environment that is affordable enough for locals to work and shop in.
People can’t find jobs in Ojai, so they are leaving the area. And those who are able to live in Ojai, shop elsewhere, he said.
Scott Eicher, chief executive officer of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, said he thought Ojai was capable of catering to both tourists and residents, and needs to do so to survive.
“It is a question of balance,” he said. “Tourism is the primary source of revenue for the city’s general fund. Local businesses cannot survive on tourism alone. If the majority of our local businesses close, there will be nothing to attract the tourists. Therefore the key is to develop a balanced economy that serves residents and tourists alike.”
While the Ojai Valley Inn, the city’s biggest revenue source is doing better than expected, raising the bed tax revenues for the city, its customers are likely shopping less often outside of the inn’s grounds, as evidenced by the drop in sales tax.
Meanwhile The Ojai Valley Shopping Center at the “Y” intersection, which, with a Vons grocery store, a pharmacy and two banks, caters more to locals than tourists, has almost no vacancies at all. The only exception is an office space above Washington Mutual Bank which has no visible storefront.
One anonymous real estate agent attributed the vacancies to expensive rent. Polito said that part of the problem was the run-down state of some of spaces for lease.
Some of the longtime vacancies are site specific. The former Roland Exxon Station on Ojai Avenue remained vacant for about 10 years, since contamination from a leaking gas tank was discovered beneath the property. The old bowling alley, also a 10-year eyesore, was set aside by its Louisiana-based owner after a ground water issue deemed the structure a health and safety hazard. The abandoned shell near the Skate Park, once Video Adventures, also appears as if it has been left to rot. The Texaco station, however, now mostly cleaned up, was purchased by Meyerstein Trust in November 2007 and is getting a remodel soon, hopefully attracting a tenant.
Nonetheless the failing businesses seem to be a combination of factors, according to Eicher. Nationwide economic trends are part of the problem. In addition, merchants are having difficulty catering to Ojai’s complex consumer demographic, according to Polito.
Eicher said that the chamber and the city were working together to address the issue but said he wasn’t ready to ready to give any details of this effort at this time.


Anonymous said...

Hey why don't we build some more buildings. I for one do not shop in Ojai as the traffic and parking are a pain in the rear. Cater to the tourist and end up with nothing.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, if the city had not blocked the initiatives in 2006 with its SLAPP lawsuit, would we have have so many vacant storefronts and struggling businesses today? Not to mention people leaving because of no hope for affordability.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, if the city had not blocked the initiatives in 2006 with its SLAPP lawsuit

Yeah. That must be it. Great logic.

Anonymous said...

I thought the initiatives were intended to LIMIT business, by keeping out chains. Subway sure would be more beneficial to the city than the empty storefront that is there now. We have to decide which is the stronger interest right now: having busineses open in town, or controlling whaet businesses are allowed with an iron fist. Please don't spew on about protecting the character of Ojai. There are plenty of ways to maintain that without squashing commerce.


Anonymous said...

I would rather see a Subway store on Matilija Street than a neglected building. The character of Ojai should be a thriving community, not a withered up ghost town.


otis pell said...

kior-a namste!
we must... free our Valley of the corporate hooligans, bankers, car-drivers. Drink from the GODDESS all her children..naturing nurturing, bathing, frolicking. yes?

Anonymous said...

Is Earth Friend Jen back already?

Anonymous said...

How is a Subway fast food chain in any way good for Ojai? I can't believe I'm reading statements like that here.

Anonymous said...

The character of Ojai is now, in part, empty storefronts. Subway would be better than an empty storefront, and as the months go by with no alternative it is less objectionable.

Anonymous said...

Many of the abandoned eyesores mentioned were abandoned eyesores even when the economy was great. And Polito's place has no NEW businesses (except the one that already went out of business), therefore leaving many empty spaces around town. However, if those landlords rehabbed those empty spaces, perhaps they, too, would find a tenant. Salomon should take note and pick up a paintbrush rather than pander to a lifeless fast food chain.

Anonymous said...

People from elsewhere buy commercial property in Ojai and raise the rents beyond the ability of locals to pay.
Well-heeled people from elsewhere then move in and try to sell items that the locals can't afford, or optimistic locals open high-end businesses that cater almost exclusively to tourists, ignoring the fact that the tourist of the moment is probably someone from within a 100 mile radius looking for an affordable getaway, and that these folks are probably going to buy nothing much more than a meal, an ice cream cone, a cup of coffee, or an inexpensive memento of some sort.

This town has resisted and will continue to resist all attempts to turn it into anything other than what it is, and in spite of all theories to the contrary, it is ultimately the people who live here who decide what it is. Their needs to be a healthy symbiosis between the majority of businesses and the people who don't go home to another town at the end of the day. There also needs to be a change in the way some businesses treat their customers. When a customer decides to make a purchase, that person doesn't want to have to wait until the clerk finishes a long and intimate cell phone conversation. The customer doesn't want to wait five minutes in line only to be shoved aside by someone who phones in a query and a clerk who ignores everyone waiting in line and disappears into the aisles or the back room to help the phone customer. Quite often in certain local businesses there will be live customers standing at the register with real money in their hands, and the clerk blows them off for someone who is probably just shopping around. The prospective customer on the phone needs to be politely asked to wait, and the actual customer needs to be rewarded for physically dragging his or herself down to that store and shopping there. There are more than a couple of businesses in town where the customer is often greeted with an attitude that says "Hey, if you don't like it, drive to Ventura or Oxnard." After enough of that treatment, most customers will simply agree to do that, and that's not good. No business should have to put up with rude, unfriendly, mean-spirited customers whose absence would make shopping more pleasant for all the rest of the customers, but neither should the average customer be made to feel as if the help is doing them a huge and costly favor by simply allowing them to make a purchase.

Hopefully, when the empty storefronts are no longer empty, they will be filled with useful, affordable, and attractive businesses where owners, staff, non-paying visitors and clients alike all treat each other with civility, respect, and gratitude.

When will these storefronts no longer be empty? Perhaps when certain landlords finally decide that any reasonable rent is better than no rent at all, and when locals who don't want chain stores put their money mouths are and open the kinds of businesses they want to see in town.

Anonymous said...

When will these storefronts no longer be empty? Perhaps when certain landlords finally decide that any reasonable rent is better than no rent at all, and when locals who don't want chain stores put their money mouths are and open the kinds of businesses they want to see in town.

This comment is right on the money. But just remember - there are many locals sitting on the sidelines right now ready to "put their money where their mouths are" and open up exactly the kinds of businesses we want to see. The problem is landlords who charge too high a rent for the realistic revenues of real Ojai businesses, spaces that require far too much initial investment in order to make them ready, and, on top of that, a city that is all to ready to lengthen the process of permitting, and impose onerous requirements that may make sense for well-heeled chain stores and their ilk, but not independent owner-operated businesses that enhance the character of Ojai.

Add to that the need for making existing housing affordable, so that our locals who would like to give a local business a go can feel comfortable that they actually will be able to stay here and raise their families over the long term.

Goes back, again, to the 2006 initiatives that were stifled by the city. Its basically a question of values and vision. Do we want empty storefronts to become pandemic, to the point where in desperation for anything people embrace chain stores and their ilk (as we are seeing among some commenters here)? Or do we want to preserve and enhance our small town feel, with a diverse array of thriving, locally owned and operated independent businesses and affordable existing housing?

With our current city council's policies, we have essentially conceded our future to the agenda of a few, often out of town property owners, who would prefer to see us chain up, build some big KB-style home developments in the orange groves to increase population and bring more people to support more high-rent-paying chains, and generally grow as fast and furious as we will allow, bringing a fat return on their investment.

That's one vision of Ojai's future, one that is supported by squashing initiatives and doing nothing while storefronts go vacant and our young families up and leave.

But its not the only vision, and its not inevitable.

Remember, in the lead-up to the stifled initiatives, we saw our city leaders sit back and insist they could do nothing to help save the O-Hi Frostie, a then-viable, independent local business that was killed by eviction.

We are a small town. We concede our future one business at a time, and one family at a time, as people decide to up and move.

Anonymous said...

I've never had a problem with chain stores moving into Ojai. And before everyone starts yelling...NO I didn't just move here - I've lived here for 41 years. And in that time, I've never seen so many empty, neglected buildings. With new construction going up for more buildings to sit without tenents (see Gridley/Ojai Avenue). I feel that we should be able to address letting some type of chain stores move in without everyone getting up in arms

D. Lloyd

R. Lloyd said...

You rabble-rouser, D. Lloyd!
We all know you just want to get a footlong sub at Subway - Matilija St. without having to drive out to Mira Monte.

Edward Libbey said...

I would love to see a McDonald's Playland in the Arcade.

Anonymous said...

welcome to ojai at:
- the deserted gas station at the "y"; and
- the deserted car dealership on the other side of the road; and
- the deserted real estate office next to the deserted car dealership; and
- the deserted spa shop next to the deserted real estate office next to the deserted car dealership; and
- the deserted old gas station at ventura street; and
- the empty shops on the 'drag'; and
- the deserted hamburger shop @ sea fresh; and
- the deserted bowling alley.

yeah, i guess that's all better than god (or whoever) forbid a sandwich shop.

who are you all fooling? we'd like to think we live in paradise but the reality is, from all visible signs, we are living in the shadow of a lively, former self. we live in a growing ghost town.

no small thanks to those that are closing the door after they are here.

makes me proud to say i live here.

Anonymous said...

save the O-Hi Frostie
Polito did the city a great favor, his building looks great. The Frostie was the only business on that eyesore block, if you don't count the guy out back dealing out of his LTD ("one at a time!"). Yeah, "teenagers need a place to congregate after school!"

there are many locals sitting on the sidelines right now ready to "put their money where their mouths are" and open up exactly the kinds of businesses we want to see.
How many? Who are they? Who is "we", kemosabe? What type of businesses? This is the type of claim that needs real backup, not jawboning at the Ojai Coffee Roasting Co.

Ojai Valley doesn't have an endless supply of entrepreneurs waiting to risk it all for a life of six-day workweeks in retail. The ordinance is in place, and this is the consequence.

Anonymous said...

The real estate office in between the Ford dealership and the spa place (the ORIGINAL Ford dealership) is NOT deserted.

Anonymous said...

i stand corrected.

my perception, and probably most others, is that the real estate shop, due to the down state of affairs of the real estate market and other causes, appears deserted.

no cars, no traffic, no visible signs of life give a perception of deserted.

i'm certain it is not my unique perception.

and i apologize to the operators of the real estate company. they just appear deserted. i hope you can make it through the lean years.

Anonymous said...

No new businesses in Polito's place?

Let's see, Zack's jewelry, Santa Fe Trading Company, the cell phone store, Body Essentials, Mrs. Tipps haircuts for kids and soon, Blanche Street coffee & tea, Hartman Mortgage moved in from Meiner's Oaks. That's 50% of the spaces occupied by never before seen in Ojai businesses.

The local businesses who moved in left all the empty store fronts?

Few of the empty store fronts can be attributed to the local businesses who moved. Noah's old space-rented, Troop Reality's old space - rented. Jim and Rob's old space, although still vacant is taken. Ojai Business Center's old space - rented. Curves old location is the only unspoken for space.

Loads of locals waiting to open stores?

I echo Anon May 15 2:05! Truth or dare time-step forward and name yourselves.

I agree that customer service in this town could use a some work, but more is expected from small retailers as well. Limits on how much we can pay staff often result in the poor customer service that some experience.

Most stores only have a single person working at any one time. When there is a line of folks, you do the best you can to work though it. Do you complain about the grocery store checkout line or the Post Office line? If I take time with another customer, remember that I will take the same care of you when it is your turn. This is one of the perks of a small town-we love our customers and that leads to conversations.

How many stores have closed that offered needed & well priced products? Bill Bakers, gone, Charles Shoes, gone, Ojai Sports, gone. The Indian Store, gone. The Yarn shop next to the funeral home, gone. The great little toy store on Ojai Ave (can't remember the name right now), gone. Ojai Pets - the most knowledgeable bird folks in town, gone. The Barking Lot, gone. And that's all in the 10 years that i've been here. These were not tourist stores offering high-end stuff. They catered to the locals.

None of these were run out of business by chain stores except to the extent that locals drive down the hill for one-stop shopping at the discounters.

All towns cycle through this kind of situation. The truly great towns find solutions and rise from the difficulties strong and vibrant. Ojai has the right stuff to do that if we can rise above the petty blame throwing that pulls us off target.

B Dawson
Noah's Apothecary

Anonymous said...

why don't we open an adult bookstore? It will create lots of tax revenue. It is so long over do here.

ox womyn said...

Fornicating corporations, car drivers disrupting the divine nature THE 'Chumash Harmonies' the gifts of Goddess Moon HER womb full of primordial water(s), safe finally from the abortant body odors, the roadways ...and not giving our tax dollars to STARBUCKS Running naked chasing ground squirrels ....procreating... .do you SEE?

Painted Hand Farm said...

I lived in the Ojai Valley for many years prior to moving back east. When I returned for a three-week visit during the Christmas holiday season, I was looking forward to doing some holiday gift shopping as I had always done while I was a resident. What mess downtown had become! $45 socks, $300 sweaters--there was very little there that was even worth it. The 'locals' not only can not afford to shop there, but if they could, there's nothing really worth buying.

Anonymous said...

Painted Hand....

It all depends what you are looking for as you certainly can find $300 sweaters in Ojai- just as you can at any mall.

I have found clothes for reasonable prices at Kindred Spirit - far less costly than what you mention. In fact I purchase fabulous natural fiber socks there for about $11. Their Dansko and Born shoes are the same price as anywhere else.

I have always found cool gifts - across a wide price range - at Kava, Rains, Ojai House, Soul Centered and Bart's Books.

As to your comment:
"The 'locals' not only can not afford to shop there, but if they could, there's nothing really worth buying."

My clientele is about 90% local so I think they would disagree you!

B Dawson

Lisa Snider said...

Two articles on shopping cheap and local for the holidays:



Anonymous said...

Add Ojai Video to the list of casualties. Sue's landlord raised her rent to $4,000 a month, and she can no longer afford to rent the space. She's selling off her inventory, and Sunday, June 1st will be her last rental day. Another long-time Ojai business that served locals well will now disappear into the shadows of history, and who knows what will replace it? I'm so sorry for Sue; she always treated us like family.

Anonymous said...

For the record, the Video store was on the market since sometime last fall. Let's not start blaming landlords for all the ills.

The post makes it sound as if the landlord jacked up the rent to an unaffordable amount in a short period. I doubt this could be true as Mr. Borgaro is the sweetest guy on the face of the planet. When some landlords increased rent by the exact dollar amount of the Arcade Plaze assesment increase, Mr Borgaro did not. Each year, on my anniversary date, I always received COL documentation about why he was raising my monthly rent by 10 or 20 dollars.

Blue Sky music closed because of the music market as a whole. I suspect that the video market is every bit as dicey right now. It's sad to see long standing businesses leave, but markets change and sometimes you simply can't stay competitive.

Best wishes for the future to all at Ojai Video. There but for the grace of doG go any of us.

B Dawson

Anonymous said...

Blue Sky was a disappointment. Sal was not service oriented, and he could be moody and rude. I witnessed him criticize patrons music choices, would refuse to look up from his webbrowsing until he was sure the customer knew who was in control, and I when I special-ordered something from Blue Sky I had to call to prompt action. Always sad when a local goes under, but Blue Sky deserved it.

Anonymous said...

I have heard those comments about Sal before, although I always had wonderful, insightful conversations with him. He was opinionated and eschewed political correctness. Perhaps this is why we got along.

Customer service aside, Mary Poppins could have run that place and changing market conditions would still have made it impossible to continue. It had nothing to do with the cost of rent which was my, perhaps poorly made, point. Sal once told me that he sold more music to visitors than to locals.

Cities that are vital are cities with business diversity. Ojai is rapidly losing diversity and that will continue until locals start shopping locally in significant numbers.

But in order to attract locals, businesses must exist that offer the goods and services that folks need. Too bad business diversity is restricted now in Ojai.

B Dawson

Anonymous said...

B Dawson, you made your point very well. Your example just reminded me of a disappointing local experience, that's all. Your store is great, and you are quite knowledgeable, and we are lucky you have chosen to do business here in Ojai. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

OH YES! Let's not start
blaming landlords for
their rent increases!
After all they are merely
keeping up with fair
market value. What
Ojai Video loss illustrates
is local fabric being
deliberately shredded
by greed. Economics 101
lesson: If rents are kept
constantly stable
for small business,
it earns their
loyalty for the
long term,not resulting
in empty storefronts
increasingly taking over
the town because no one can make the monthly nut. PL

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the complement. My crew and I work hard to keep pets and their humans happy.

Pete, take a chill pill.

Economics 101 also dictates that if businesses can't afford the rent, the storefronts stay empty until the landlord can't make his/her own mortgage and then the rent will come down. Supply/Demand.

"Stable rent" Pete? C'mon. Do you expect wages to stay stable? Of course not. Things rise with the COL index.

Rents here are running around $1.50 per square foot, give or take. Are there landlords charging much more? Of Course there are. But I will not stand by and let landlords that I know, decent & considerate folks, take the rap for something that isn't their fault. The brush stroke is too broad.

B Dawson

Anonymous said...

re: video shop.

considering the whole technology shift from videos to dvd to netflix to downloading movies from the internet - coming to your tv soon - i think it's a testament to the owner that she's been able to remain open for as long as she has.

and i stand and applaud her for that.

and when we are all downloading movies directly to our tvs - nevermind the already-here movies on demand - the owner will be looked upon as a visionary who saw the future and decided now was a great time to say goodbye - while on top.

and i stand and applaud her for that too.

good on her!

Marria said...

I live in LA now, but I grew up in Ojai. I would like some kind of resolution on how to build revenue in Ojai. Just don't have Subway or any other big chain come into the Arcade it will not solve the problem. I know that when I tell people to go see Ojai, they are interested on getting away from anything commercial or anything that reminds them of LA.

I know that I am not the only one that has left Ojai and does not miss the little town that we have grown up in. Pls save it for our children and the people that want to return.