In business on the Vineyard, one man’s downturn is another man’s opportunity. Particularly in spring.
“Why here?” said Douglas Hewson this week, sitting in the building site of the new venue for Mediterranean, a building recently vacated by Lola’s restaurant following a 15-year run.
“In a word? Potential. We traded our water view for 75 parking spaces.”
Mr. Hewson has run Mediterranean with his wife Leslie from Beach Road in Vineyard Haven for five years. With the lease up they cast around for a new place and settled on Lola’s, the 240-seat venue on Beach Road Oak Bluffs. They plan to open Easter Sunday.
“Lola’s had a great run and, in its heyday, it was the spot. But it had been 15 years and they were done,” he said. “You got to grow or die.”
The Vineyard Haven location presented various problems for Mr. Hewson.
There was the size of the place.
“It was too small in Tisbury; we were turning people away,” he said. “You couldn’t fit one more in.”
The fact that Vineyard Haven is a dry town didn’t help either he said.
“People would hop out, ask, y’all got Bud Lite? And they’d get back in the van,” he said.
In the old building the Hewsons shared nine spots with three businesses presenting a walk to the restaurant for most patrons.
“In New York or Boston you would think nothing of walking six blocks but those same people would come here and say, man I can’t come I got nowhere to park,” he said.
Chief among the problems, though, he said, was his landlord, Falmouth Marine, who he said placed a restrictive lease on the business, including a 15 per cent jump in rent if the town allows beer and wine sales — whether or not the Hewsons applied for a license.
“That lease was a slow death — it would have put me out of business,” he said.
But for Susan and Stephen Bowen the same building is an exciting prospect. They signed a lease on the Vineyard Haven building earlier this year and will open the Blue Canoe restaurant to the public on May 2.
Mrs. Bowen, who also operates the Main street Waterside Market with her husband, was shocked when she heard the lease for the newly vacated Mediterranean restaurant was available.
“You’d think people would be jumping all over it,” she said, “That’s one of only two water view restaurants. But because of the recession it was available.”
Across from the Waterside Krista Marinelli has taken over ownership of Vineyard Gourmet, and is putting the finishing touches on an extensive renovation. But she has struggled to clear the various hurdles required for the change of business including installing four kitchen sinks, and is still waiting on approval for a lounge on the lower level.
“There are hoops to jump through,” she said, “I just wanted to update things — locals don’t mind, but with tourists you don’t know. It’s been 20 years; it needed renovating.”
When Fancy That, a jewelry store which was part of the same building closed earlier this year, a sequence of shifts allowed Susan Leland and Susan Morenzi to move into their dream spot which has almost double the floor space and fronts Main street.
Mix, a retro clothing moved into the Fancy That space, and tie die clothing store Shabiro moved into the Two Susans old place after a year in Oak Bluffs. There are eight businesses in the building in total.
“The rent’s reasonable,” said Ms. Lelend who plans to open mid-April. “It helps if your husband is the landlord,” she added.
Among a line of stores on Circuit avenue with newspapers or for rent signs covering the window, Lazy Frog owner Sarah Gifford was hooking up her phone line this week.
She and her husband Jake operated for four years in Edgartown and were always looking for a more central location. When their landlord raised the rent this year they took the leap.
“There’s more inventory of open stores to choose from this year,” said Mrs. Gifford, “I walked into this place and said yes, I’ll take it. The rent was pretty darn close and it’s a wider space.”
A big draw was the foot traffic, she said.
“In Edgartown, you couldn’t get people to go right,” she said, referring to her former location just off lower Main street.
The beach nearby is also a boon for the store which sells leisure wear, games and beach gear.
Around the corner on Kennebec avenue, Michael and Jon Hartzband from New Hampshire plan to open the Oak Bluffs General Store within a couple of weeks.
“The idea is like a funky general store,” he said. “It’ll be vintage T-shirts, surf store, skin boards, beach gear, gourmet foods, and coffee,” said younger brother Michael, 31. Jon, who works in real estate, bought the building last year.
The recession wasn’t a factor said the retailer, who spent the winter running a T-shirt store in New Hampshire.
“We have the building, so . . .” said Mr. Hartzband.
Seagate Inc., one of the Island’s major commercial property landlords, owns several prominent storefront in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven which are vacant.
Manager Ben Hall Jr. said he is in final negotiations with a clothing store to lease at least part of the storefront of the old Murray’s building on Main street Vineyard Haven, which has been empty for more than two years.
“We’re in the midst of discussion and waiting for them to sign an agreement,” he said.
In Edgartown, there have been a few expressions of interest for the vacated Black Dog store on Summer street, said Mr. Hall, but the parties backed out when funding fell through.
“Their investors caught the Wall Street flu,” he said.
The asking rent for the store is $53,000 per year plus taxes, insurance and utilities, he said, but in this climate there may be wiggle room.
“We’ve been saying, make us an offer,” he said. “And we’ve been putting rent freezes on some properties and adjusting others down to help people stay in business.”
The Halls also own the building known as the Yellow House on the corner of Summer and Main, which has been vacant for several years and has fallen into disrepair, and currently has a hole in the roof.
“We’d love to do something with that building; Gerry Conover had wonderful plans for it,” Mr. Hall said, referring to Gerret C. Conover. ”And we’re still hoping they’ll strike an arrangement with us,” he said.
Mr. Hall is a retailer himself and operates Great Harbour Gourmet Wine and Spirits on Main street.
“It’s the worst winter I’ve had since 1993,” he said. “Downtown is suffering tremendously off-season. But with the uptick in the stock market hopefully people will decide to come here and stay close to home.”