Despite tough economy, business district finds support from community
June 15, 2009
Sarah Compratt, Amanda McWilliams, Buffy Vance, Ron Blakey and Ann Stokr all have something in common. Each has opened a business in downtown Urbana in the last year, in the middle of an economic recession.
They all have something else in common as well. Their businesses have been successful.
Compratt, owner of Fleurish, a flower shop at 110 S. Race St., said business has been “wonderful” since the store opened in February.
McWilliams is co-owner of Furniture Lounge, 126 W. Main St., and she said business has been “awesome” since she moved her store from Champaign to Urbana in September.
Vance opened Madeline’s Confectionary Arts Studio & Gallery at 122 W. Main St. in February and said all her current classes are booked until July.
Blakey and Stokr own Morning Cup and More, a coffee shop at 202 N. Race St. While admitting the economy has had its negative effects, Blakey said business has been “progressing,” and he’s “seen a lot of positive things.”
And so goes the current sentiment of business in downtown Urbana. It’s a great place to open up shop, at least according to anecdotal evidence heard from the local business owners.
“There’s a lot going on in downtown Urbana,” Compratt said.
Thomas Carrino, economic development manager of Urbana, estimated that in the last six months about 10 new businesses have opened in downtown Urbana, and “just about all of them are still in business.”
Local business owners chose to not talk about financial records or specific profit numbers, and there are no reports or studies that prove how well Urbana businesses are doing. However, Urbana Business Association executive director Susan Toalson only needs to keep her eyes open to know that the downtown industry is succeeding.
“My office is on Main Street,” Toalson said. “I sit here, looking out onto the sidewalk, and I have seen an increase in foot traffic in the last two and a half years.”
There’s a host of possible explanations for why foot traffic has increased in downtown Urbana and why businesses have been successful.
Toalson believes the diverse set of businesses in downtown Urbana is what helps keep all of them successful and, in turn, profitable. With such a mix of places to go, customers enjoy going downtown and will spend their money at multiple places, she said.
“When you’ve got new businesses coming in, then you start achieving a critical mass … so people are willing to come to downtown as a shopping experience and not just because they have their sights on one destination,” Toalson said.
“(Urbana’s) got a good mix of what it takes to be a sustainable business district — morning, noon and night,” Toalson added.
McWilliams, though, provided a simpler explanation.
“Urbana people support Urbana business,” McWilliams said. “They’ve been so welcoming and so supportive.”
That was a sentiment shared by other owners as well, as Blakey wholeheartedly agreed.
“We’ve had some very positive impact and feedback from some Urbana people and organizations,” Blakey said.
As an example, Blakey mentioned that the West Urbana Neighborhood Association has helped spread the word about Morning Cup and More in various ways such as e-mail.
Another reason Urbana residents might support their local businesses so well is because of the vital role the Urbana government plays with its hands-on approach.
Carrino said the city meets with potential business owners and helps to identity good locations for them. He also said the city has business incentive programs that “most the businesses downtown have been able to utilize.”
One such program is the arts gallery district incentive program. As a means to get more businesses downtown pertaining to the arts, the city of Urbana subsidizes half the monthly rent, up to $500, for such a business’s first year. That is a program Vance is using, and it is just one of many ways the city helps out, according to local owners.
“The Urbana city government really tries hard to support local businesses,” Blakey said. “They’ve had a reputation over the years of not being a big supporter of big chain development operations.”
Because Urbana has fewer chain stores to shop at than Champaign, for example, small local businesses in Urbana get more customers. In the minds of some owners, Urbana has an advantage over Champaign simply because Champaign residents are just as likely to head to North Prospect Avenue to the chain stores for convenience as shop at the local downtown businesses.
The Urbana Business Association plays an important role as well. It provides networking events, puts on special events and, as Toalson put it, acts as a “hub of information” for the public. Vance credited Toalson and the Urbana Business Association for helping organize everything and having the “business savvy” to make ideas happen.
Vance had another idea for why businesses have flourished in downtown Urbana. She said small-business owners do a great job of referring customers to other local businesses.
“The shop owners, we all look after each other,” Vance said. “If somebody stops here, I always send them to the others, making sure they know the other businesses. And (other owners) do the same … We just have a lot of camaraderie here. We take care of each other. I just think when you’re generous like that, it comes back to you.”