|Retail up, down during shutdown
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · October 18, 2013
Retail outlets experienced mixed results from the shutdown of the Hoover Complex that began Oct. 1.
Also, utility companies are aware that delayed Social Security and Women Infant Children checks may keep customers from paying bills on time, but none report any significant increase in past due bills.
Owners of Main Street Antiques and Art and Marg’s Little Red House saw sales increase significantly since the park closed.
“My business has been better the last two weeks,” owner Lou Picek said.
He thinks part of that is because his shop has become a “destination” and that this is the time of year antique and art dealers stop by prior to attending shows in Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, Ill., and at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids.
“The last two Saturdays have been really busy, though Sunday was deader than a doornail,” he said.
Jodi Clemens, co-owner of Marg’s Little Red House, said “the last couple of weeks have been our busiest ever.
She said the later operating hours may play a part, but traffic is certainly a factor.
“Main Street’s been packed for several weeks,” she said. “It’s hard to find a parking spot.”
She said she is not sure why.
“Maybe people feel sorry for us, … but we’re not complaining,” she said.
Main Street West Branch Program Director Mackenzie Krob said it is possible tourists keep coming because they have not connected the Hoover Presidential Library-Museum and Hoover National Historic Site to the 17 percent of the federal government affected by the shutdown. In an unintentional bait-and-switch, they find the park closed, so they decide to explore the downtown instead.
“I think some of the general public do not understand that the park is closed,” she said.
Krob said MSWB’s retail committee and businesses have been working together to try to attract more visitors from the Hoover Complex, like setting similar hours and doing more advertising. Businesses are also making a point of tracking customers better and paying closer attention to when they are busy, she said.
Krob said pass-through tourists tend to set aside a couple of hours when they stop, so when they turn that time toward shopping, retail shops see more traffic, and, often, more sales.
“Hopefully the business will continue and help some get into the black before the holidays,” Krob said.
West Branch Treasures owner Lori Walsh said she did not notice any change in sales after the Oct. 1 shutdown, but the second week the business had “hardly any sales.”
“It slowed down a lot,” she said. “There wasn’t nearly as much traffic.”
Partners at West Branch Emporium said results varied. Partner Peggy Jeffries said she usually sells enough of her merchandise to pay her portion of the rent by the eighth of each month. But when she talked to the West Branch Times on Oct. 14, she still had not sold enough.
“I’m for sure down,” she said, though she was not sure about the other partners. “Definitely, though, our bread and butter is not travelers, though foot traffic is down.”
Al Axeen, another partner, said that sales for him have been about the same as last year, but he did notice a drop in tourists.
“There has not been as many new faces,” he said.
Each of the retailers report out-of-town customers coming in and asking about the park. Many seemed surprised to find it closed.
“We had a couple people come in and ask if the park was open,” Walsh said. “One asked ‘Do you think it is worth coming back to West Branch for?’ I said ‘Yes!’”
Jeffries said one customer said they thought that the Hoover Complex is a “little park” and that “the locals would keep it going.”
Utility companies seem aware of the fact that delays in federally funded checks — whether through entitlements or paychecks — may mean late payments, but that actually has not happened yet.
Scott Drzycimski, spokesman for Alliant Energy, said a few customers have called in with the concern that they may be late, but “none have said they can’t pay due to the shutdown.”
Drzycimski said Alliant will work with customers who struggle to make payments to help them get caught up.
“If they see that coming, we’ll certainly work with them,” he said. “But if they see it coming, don’t wait until the bill is past due.”
Drzycimski said utility companies, “as a whole,” are talking to Congress about this concern.
Jerry Melick, manager of Liberty Communications, said a check of the list of customers getting disconnected from service “doesn’t seem abnormally large.”
Melick said customers have not cited late government checks as a reason for not paying.
City Administrator Matt Muckler said the same about water bills. However, the more immediate concern is contracts between the city and the Hoover Site.
“Obviously, we’ve lost a really important part of the community with the park being closed,” Muckler said. “Some businesses are not getting the traffic they normally get.”
He said the city has agreements in place with the park to provide things like trail maintenance, law enforcement assistance and snow plowing. The city administrator noted that the new quilting business downtown had a question about parking behind the store on the street owned by the Hoover Park, but that he cannot get an answer because of the closure.
“We can’t really calculate in dollars and cents and time” what it means that the park is closed, he said. “We (are used to) regular contact with the park.”