Auburn sees more businesses close

By: Gloria Young, Journal Staff Writer
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The Pizza Place owner Mike Hocutt had hoped to enjoy the benefits of being near Downtown Auburn’s completed Streetscape area. But the recession got the better of him. Hocutt and his son, Richie, closed the doors of the eatery last week, just as the city’s beautification project was seeing its finishing touches. “Starting about 18 months ago, as the economy slipped, we saw a 35 percent reduction in sales,” Hocutt said this week. “When Streetscape (construction) hit, it was an additional 10 percent.” Hocutt’s business is one of a number that have closed recently or are closing in Auburn. A few blocks up the street, Christmas Village owner Teri Gibson is keeping her store open two days a week — Fridays and Saturdays — for the final merchandise sale, which includes the display cases. “I’ve been in business, between crafts and Christmas Village, for 27 years,” she said. Although she cites the economy as part of the reason, she says it was just time to (close the store). “I have two other jobs, and (taking on even more),” she said. Gibson also sells her merchandise on the store’s Web site and may continue to do that through Auburn Marketplace. “I am going to miss the interaction with the customers,” she said. “I had a lot of great customers for many years — some for more than 25 years. There are customers I’m friends with that I’ll continue to see outside the business.” Gibson plans to continue to be active in the Downtown Business Association and is in charge of this year’s Auburn Wine & Food Festival, scheduled for October. In the Auburn Town Center, Belle Beauty Supply closed several months ago as owner Shelly Killgore consolidated her two stores into one location on Bell Road. “Mostly it was the economy,” Killgore said, adding that Gottschalks’ closure last summer also contributed to the decrease in foot traffic. However the move is working out well for the business. “The (Bell Road) store has been there for 29 years,” she said. “The previous owners just split the business across town when they opened (the second location) five years ago.” In Old Town, six stores have been shuttered during the past six months, according to Ty Rowe, vice president of the Old Town Business Association. “In those spaces, four of the six have been refilled by other businesses,” he said Tuesday. “A lot of people just retired. They’ve been here a long time, were nearing retirement and just tired of the struggle.” And others are on the verge of leaving. Lemon Tree II, a gift shop owned by Sharon Feeley, will close at the end of the month. Betty Nelson, a longtime antique dealer, is closing her store to enjoy retirement. “Everybody is hurting down here,” Rowe said. “But we’re trying to be optimistic and come up with ways to boost business. We’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen and when it is going to change.” On Commercial Street, as stores have moved out, others have taken their place. Naughty ’n Nice opened about a year ago and owner Raelynn Harrold recently opened a second clothing store, Hailey’s Comet, next-door. A couple of stores down, Those were the Days opened on the block about a year ago. Three long-time antique business owners went in together and that is proving to be a successful strategy, co-owner Kelley Von Zboray said. “We keep the store open seven days a week and we all share hours and expenses,” she said. “It works because we don’t have the expense of running our own shop.” At the Auburn Chamber of Commerce, CEO Bruce Cosgrove said he’s hearing business owners say they don’t know how much longer they can hang on and remain in business. “Some of them were saying the same thing last year,” he said. “I think what we’re experiencing in seeing additional businesses close is the long-term effect since October 2008. …I don’t think the economy is getting worse. I do believe it is improving or has improved slightly, but it hasn’t been enough for most businesses. Business in general is marginal right now in terms of profitability. So owners and managers have had to get smarter and rethink how they do business. It is a real challenge.” For Hocutt, there are few regrets. “We lost a considerable amount of money, but enjoyed working in the community and being part of events,” he said. “The Black & White Ball was a real blast for us. We did well on Cruise Nites and enjoyed that kind of camaraderie from the community.” Gloria Young can be reached at