Small business owners struggle in the shadow of a construction project 

Parking woes put a damper on sales at a James Island shopping center

Cory Schwartz, owner of Cory's Grilled Cheese, says business withered after a fence went up in his shopping center's parking lot in November.

Jonathan Boncek

Cory Schwartz, owner of Cory's Grilled Cheese, says business withered after a fence went up in his shopping center's parking lot in November.

One way or another, every tenant in the James Island shopping center at the intersection of Folly Road and Maybank Highway has felt the impact of a lengthy construction project to bring in a new Harris Teeter grocery store. The bottles in Holly's Liquors clanked together when a construction crew drove earthquake drains into the soil, and clients at Exemplar Fitness jumped as the drywall cracked and dust shook out of the ceiling.

More than anything, small business owners at the corner strip mall are feeling the impact financially. A construction crew put up a chain-link fence around the grocery store construction site in November 2014, blocking off a sizeable portion of the center's 295 parking spaces. Some tenants say they immediately saw their sales plummet due to decreased visibility and parking, particularly in the back corner of the shopping center, where a single lane of parking spaces now services 10 storefronts including City Nail Spa.

"At my shop, a lot of my customers are old ladies, so they go with a walker, they go with a cane," says City Nail Spa owner My Nguyen. "Lots of customers call me and cancel their appointments because they don't have parking."

Nguyen isn't the only tenant who's hurting. Katherine Valentine, owner of James Island Cleaners, says the construction project has made parking near her store a near-impossibility. "We have customers that have told us they're not coming back because they can't find parking," Valentine says.

In the back corner of the shopping center, Cory Schwartz, owner of Cory's Grilled Cheese, says the fence has shrunk his once-steady breakfast crowd, with customers unwilling to deal with a parking snafu on their way in to work.

"I can't tell you how many times people come back in here and say, 'Oh, thank goodness you're still open. We thought the shopping center closed,'" Schwartz says. "We need the word out there that we're still back here."

Schwartz, who started his restaurant as a gourmet food truck, moved into the storefront in July 2013, just a few months before the shopping center's previous grocery tenant — a Piggly Wiggly — closed its doors for good.

"We never would have signed the lease if we knew the Pig was going to close and then be vacant for two years," Schwartz says.

When Harris Teeter took over the site in October 2013, the company announced in a press release that it would "close the store for approximately one year to remodel the store." Finally, in November 2014, the construction fence went up — and business tanked for Schwartz. "Overnight, it killed us," Schwartz says.

Like several other business owners in the shopping center, Schwartz says Harris Teeter promised to put up signs along the fence to advertise the businesses that had suddenly become invisible from the street. That never happened. A representative of the shopping center's property management company, Southern Real Estate Management, sent out an email in December saying that wind could cause the fence to topple if signs were attached, potentially hitting vehicles.

"It's been five months now since the fence went up, and all we've gotten is one little banner," Schwartz says. "Five months of business operating at 50 percent, that's unsustainable."

As for the construction project, there is no clear end in sight. The shopping center's Virginia-based owner, Beatty Management Company, says it expects the store to be open in September, but Harris Teeter itself is making no guarantees.

"Harris Teeter did not release an exact open date," Harris Teeter spokesperson Danna Jones wrote in an email last week.

Jones says the company does plan to reduce its parking lot storage by 30 percent in May, and she says the fences and storage area will be removed in August to allow a paving overlay of the entire parking lot, weather permitting.

Katherine Valentine, owner of James Island Cleaners, says she's moving her family business, which has spent nearly 50 years in the shopping center - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Katherine Valentine, owner of James Island Cleaners, says she's moving her family business, which has spent nearly 50 years in the shopping center

Ken Miller, chief operating officer of Beatty Management Company, says he has given some of the tenants a break on their rental rates "based on them demonstrating a basis for needing help," including one tenant whom he has given free rent until the new grocery store opens.

"When Harris Teeter opens, it's going to be a game changer for the shopping center and the tenants that are there," Miller says. "It's going to change the makeup of the shopping center, the quality of the shopper, and therefore it's going to, I think, raise the bar with the existing tenants in the shopping center."

Family business

Michele Hoban, owner of Muddy Waters Coffee Bar at the front of the shopping center, says she asked her landlord about rent relief and was given a stack of paperwork to fill out.

"They'll give rent relief, but with what they ask for, you would have to spend five working days to pull all the paperwork together to provide it to them," Hoban says. "As a small business owner, who has time to do all that? They make you jump through so many hoops that it's almost impossible to do it."

Holly Jones, owner of Holly's Liquors, says she was asked for "an absolutely obscene amount of information" to get any kind of rent relief, and an accountant told her he'd charge $1,000 just to fill out the paperwork. She decided not to go through the process.

Like Schwartz, Jones says she was also promised a sign on the construction site fence, a promise that never materialized.

"Harris Teeter has shown us that they don't care at all about the community they're in, in any way, shape, or form," Jones says. "The most important things people say, they don't quote in the newspaper, they say it through their actions ... They've made it very clear to us that they don't care if we go out of business."

Danna Jones, communication manager for North Carolina-based Harris Teeter, writes in an email that the company has taken steps to "minimize the effects of construction," including reducing storage space, storing materials off-site, and paying to have the parking lot repaved.

"We strive to be good neighbors in every community we serve," Jones says. "We understand the frustration, and that is why we have taken extra steps to minimize the effects of construction, at additional cost to us."

Others in the shopping center take issue not just with the grocer, but also with the property owner, Beatty Management Company. After company founder Guy Beatty passed away at age 80 in October 2013, several tenants say they saw a change in management style.

Valentine says some members of the Beatty family still take their dry cleaning to her shop, but the company itself is not what it used to be.

"The Beattys have always had a position of 'We're a family business,' and that's how the company has always represented when dealing with them. And it's definitely been a change," Valentine says.

Jason Fiutem of Exemplar Fitness says construction has cracked his walls. "I don't need Harris Teeter to make my business or break my business," he says. - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Jason Fiutem of Exemplar Fitness says construction has cracked his walls. "I don't need Harris Teeter to make my business or break my business," he says.

Jason Fiutem, owner of Exemplar Fitness, says he had a good relationship with Guy Beatty, whom he describes as having been a self-made man and a shrewd businessman. Now Fiutem is having a hard time dealing with the company and the leasing agents who rent out the shopping center's storefronts. Recently, after eight years in the shopping center, he says he told a leasing agent he was interested in renewing his lease, but then a client came into the gym and showed him his space was listed for rent at $20 a square foot — slightly higher than his current rate.

"I don't know what the hell is going on," Fiutem says.

Miller, COO of Beatty Management Company, denies that his company wants to replace any of the existing businesses in the shopping center.

"When Harris Teeter opens, it's going to raise the quality of the shopper from when it was a Pig, and so therefore we intend to try to bring in higher-quality tenants in the vacant spaces that we have. But I don't intend to run any tenants out of business. No, that's not true whatsoever."

Fiutem, on the other hand, says he's not as optimistic about the Teeter's arrival.

"It's not the Taj Mahal, dude. It's a grocery store," Fiutem says. "Is it nice? Yeah, I'm glad it's not like a Food Lion or the old Piggly Wiggly. I'm happy. But I don't need Harris Teeter to make my business or break my business."

Exit plans

With no clear end in sight, small business owners in the James Island shopping center are weighing their options. Some are already eyeing their exits.

Jones, owner of Holly's Liquors, says she recently purchased another liquor store at 1985 Folly Road — partly because she saw it as an opportunity to expand, partly "on the off chance that they don't get done in August," she says, referring to the construction in the parking lot.

Around Christmastime, Jones says she often has scotch collectors come to her store hunting down rare bottles. December 2014 was no different, but due to a lack of parking, she says she ended up having to meet some collectors in the alley behind her store.

"It's not something that people that are spending $300 to $500 on a bottle of scotch are really that used to, meeting people in alleys," Jones says. "And I won't know until next year whether or not I've lost some of those customers."

At James Island Cleaners, Valentine says her business is the only remaining store from when the shopping center opened in the mid-1960s. Her parents bought the business in 1986, and now she says she has purchased property a mile away on Maybank Highway to relocate the store.

"It is a good central location, but everything has changed," Valentine says.

Other business owners are finding ways to adapt. Early in the afternoon on a Wednesday, an elderly couple walks into Lotus Garden Restaurant near the back of the shopping center. The tables are empty, and the woman turns to her husband to say, "I think we got here too early." Before they can turn around, owner Thanh Vu intercepts them and shows them to a table. Returning to stand beside the buffet, Vu says his business is changing.

"A lot of my customers don't want to come here just for the fact that they don't want to find a parking spot," Vu says after the couple has been seated. "So we deliver our food to them."

At Exemplar Fitness, Fiutem tenses up as a boom rings out near the sidewalk in front of his gym. "I've asked them four times today to stop dropping pallets," he says. His business is directly next door to the construction site, and he says some of his clients are losing their patience.

"I think if you look at it for what it is and say, 'This will be positive,' there could be a way to do it — or could have been a way to do it — to keep everybody happy," Fiutem says. "But if your major cabalistic plan is to get everybody out of there anyway, then you don't give a shit, and that's what it feels like.

"Sooner or later there's not going to be any local anything. Everything's going to be corporate, Corporate Anywhere USA."

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