Schenectady County

Downtown a tough sell for retail

Over the past year or so, economic development officials have turned their attention toward getting
Zaria and Bella's, a small gift shop on Jay Street in Schenectady, left the area for New London, Connecticut, after three years in business.
Zaria and Bella's, a small gift shop on Jay Street in Schenectady, left the area for New London, Connecticut, after three years in business.

Amy DeBiase made $3 the weekend before last.

She kept her Jay Street shop, Bliss Gifts & Home Décor, open all day Saturday and Sunday. She is the sole employee, owner and operator of the store, which sells a mix of modern and vintage home furnishings, jewelry and clothing. She works seven days a week. The item she sold was a picture frame; with her markup, she netted $3.

DeBiase loves Schenectady. She has hopes and dreams for the city where she grew up. Her favorite place to shop when she was younger was the Jay Street pedestrian mall.

When her business outgrew its little storefront on Mohawk Avenue in Scotia, she decided to move to her favorite, brick-lined walkway in her favorite city. That was four years ago, as the nation was still picking itself up out of the recession. She made a profit then. She breaks even — barely — now.

“I want to be happy,” she said. “I want to stay here. I don’t want to move. But I don’t know how much longer I can keep going here. I’ve spent the last several months considering closing my shop. I’ve sat here for four years watching things, and each year it’s been a little bit worse, each year I’ve made a little less money. I often think it would be easier someplace else.”

The one word officials like to pair with downtown Schenectady these days is revitalization, and for good reason. Downtown has come a long way in the past decade. There are coffee shops and restaurants, a thriving arts and entertainment district, office workers and high-tech jobs and, recently, a growing number of residential offerings right in the heart of downtown. Ask anyone what’s missing and they’ll say retail.

So over the past year or so, economic development officials have turned their attention toward getting more retail downtown, luring developers who pledge to build or renovate space with ground-floor retail. The two big desires, officials say, are for more grocery options and clothing outfits. But some existing retailers question whether downtown is really the place to thrive.

“Schenectady is definitely lacking shops,” one downtown dweller told The Gazette recently.

The line felt like a slap in the face to Lance and Mike Casey, owners of Zaria & Bella’s, a small gift shop that operated on Jay Street for three years.

Downtown Schenectady may not have the retail splendor of its heyday, when people poured into the city to shop at Sears or Barney’s or the Carl Co. or Woolworth’s. But, the Caseys contend, there are plenty of smaller shops downtown that offer a diverse array of goods.

“There are so many people that walk by and don’t even look up,” said Lance Casey. “City officials walk by my store every day, and not once have they come in.”

After three years of trying to make their gift shop work downtown, the Caseys called it quits a few weeks ago and moved their business to New London, Conn., a city they say cares about its small retailers. The business next door, a holistic health and gift shop, is expanding into the empty space.

“They have different grants available for small business,” said Mike Casey. “There’s a group that will help with rent subsidies for new businesses, a grant that you can get for signage with your store. The city has a program where if you buy a house and work in town, you get a discount on your property taxes. None of that stuff exists here.”

Actually, there is a sign program. The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority provides façade grants to businesses across the county. But the premise that Schenectady doesn’t care as much about its small business is a feeling shared by other small retailers, who say economic development officials only care about reeling in big fish with lures of special tax incentives and grants, leaving the small fish to flounder.

Tough sell

Ray Gillen paints a different picture. When he took the job of Metroplex chairman back in 2004, downtown was a ghost town. State Street was torn up, with boards placed over holes and rows of empty storefronts but for two pizza shops. No one else wanted the job, he said, and he couldn’t blame them.

“It was a complete disaster,” he said. “It was a mess. We came in and said this is how we’re going to do it. We get the coffee and clubs, the arts and entertainment, office and tech, residential, and then retail. Those are the five phases of economic development. It’s how everybody does it, and those were the tenets we stuck to every day.”

Retail, the last phase, is also the hardest to lure, Gillen said.

“Non-food retail, especially, it’s a difficult thing to get,” he said. “But we have made progress. One of the problems for a long time was we didn’t have the appropriate space for retailers. So we keep creating more space. We have the Alco site. We have enough energy and momentum now that we’re getting more attention from retailers. We knew it would take time.”

Gillen’s philosophy is that each deal leads to another, and downtown needed a base to build off before it can really thrive. But some members of downtown’s current retail base have become increasingly distressed, concerned that their lack of sales is somehow connected to their presence in downtown Schenectady. In a still-fragile economy, they admit it’s hard to know for sure.

“We’ve had people come in who say they purposely don’t come down here often because they understand it to be a dangerous, scary place,” said Mike Casey, of Zaria & Bella’s.

Elderly customers say they’ll only go downtown in the daylight. Union College students are surprised when they venture downtown and see it’s not rundown and swarming with criminals.

“I talked to four Union students this week alone because there’s a professor who sent them here to do research, and I asked them why I hadn’t seen them before, and they said everybody thinks its unsafe down here,” said DeBiase, of Bliss Gifts. “I’ve heard stories from others that part of Union’s orientation process is to tell students not to come down here. All four of them said they were surprised by how lovely it is down here and they would certainly be back.”

Union College spokesman Phil Wajda says the opposite is true. The college partners with the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. to introduce first-year students to downtown during a pre-orientation program, he said, in an effort to make students aware of the business and entertainment options downtown.

“We encourage all of our students to incorporate downtown Schenectady as part of their overall college experience from day one,” he said.

Spreading the word

Bashing Schenectady as dangerous or trashy is a favorite pastime for outsiders, but downtown hasn’t had a seedy element in a long time, said Rudy Grant, co-owner of Experience and Creative Design a few blocks away on Union Street.

The floral design and home décor business opened at the corner of Jay and State streets in 1998 before moving in 2000 to its current space, a building previously home to A&P and the Trading Port supermarket.

“It wasn’t pretty,” said Grant of downtown at the time. “When we were over on the corner of Jay and State, there were a lot of people walking the streets that really were very lower class and people would leave our store and get approached asking for money. The city had a lot of that at the time, but as downtown began to turn, one of the stories we were told was if businesses and restaurants start coming, in that element will leave, and I think it’s left.”

Today, Experience and Creative Design and its sister company, Tablecloths for Granted, Ltd., are a regional destination for people seeking high-end linens and décor.

“We have customers from Albany, Delmar, Saratoga,” said Grant. “We have trucks deliver to Massachusetts twice a week, Saratoga probably three times a week. Our philosophy is that if you’ve got a great product at a fair price, people will come to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Schenectady or wherever.”

Downtown retailers seem to realize their businesses will thrive if their neighbors also do well. They participate in cross-promotional events like the Downtown Schenectady Merchant Mash Up, which features restaurant samples inside retail stores. Last summer, they tried promoting extended Thursday night hours to get more people browsing, shopping and hanging out downtown after work.

The effort was a throwback to the city’s heyday, when people from around the region would swarm downtown streets to shop at the Carl Co. or the Wallace Armer hardware store or the Imperial. But it was also a response to the common complaint that nothing is open downtown after 5 p.m. on a weekday.

“We didn’t even know about it until the night of,” said Zaria & Bella’s owner Lance Casey, of the Thursday night effort. “A lot of the efforts here are counterproductive; no one works together. The entire thing lasted probably two weeks. After two weeks, nobody was making any extra sales so they just gave up.”

DeBiase hates hearing from people that downtown stores are never open late, because every time she has stayed open late, no one has come. It reminds her of her recent weekend alone in her shop, selling a lone item and pocketing $3.

“I pissed away an entire weekend away from my kids and family to sell a $6 item,” she said. “I spent two days with lights on, wasting my life to make $3. I love Schenectady. I want nothing more than to see it grow and prosper and thrive, because to me, what’s happened here and the hate that people seem to have for the city breaks my heart. But I don’t know how much longer I can wait for things to happen.”

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