Durham's Ninth Street gets anchor store, but local shops face more competition

vbridges@newsobserver.comNovember 11, 2013 

  • Changes on Ninth Street in Durham What’s happening now

    On Ninth Street's west side is The Shops at Erwin Mill, which includes a Harris Teeter grocery store and a Panera Bread sandwich shop as well as several locally-owned stores, including: The Duck Shop, a store that sells licensed Duke University merchandise; Pure Barre, a fitness center; 1401 Salon and Drybar; and Massage Envy.

    Also on Ninth Street's west side, near Perry Street, are an additional five spaces that house two sandwich franchises, Jimmy John's and Subway, and a Tijuana Flats chain restaurant.

    What’s coming

    Hilton Garden Inn Durham/University Medical Center, Dec. 9; Crescent Ninth Street apartment complex, first quarter 2014; Ninth Street North, which includes 229 apartments, 10,000 square feet of retail, and a 400-space parking deck, construction starts spring 2014.

— For Ninth Street small-business owners, it could be the best of times, or it could be the worst of times.

The independent shops that have helped keep this area of Durham gritty and groovy are sitting in the shadow of a colossal change.

An adjacent Harris Teeter will host a grand opening Wednesday. A 122-room Hilton Garden Inn on Main Street, steps away from Ninth, is taking reservations for Dec. 9 and beyond. Crescent Ninth Street plans to open its 302 high-end apartments in the first quarter of next year.

But it seems to be a bittersweet moment for some of the more than 50 small-business owners in or near Ninth Street’s core.

Some of those owners subscribe to the philosophy that a rising tide floats all boats.

“The more people come down this street, the better chance we got to get somebody in this front door,” said Mike Cole, owner of Charlie’s Pub & Grille.

Others worry about the lack of parking, a shift in the street’s quirky character as chains Tijuana Flats and Panera Bread move in, and the loss of Ninth Street staples in the competitive transition.

“I think they are both right in a sense,” said William Rohe, director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies.

On one hand, all the businesses will benefit from the people that Harris Teeter and other ventures attract.

However, the influx, coupled with an improving market, are likely to translate into increasing tax values and rents, Rohe said.

“The question is ‘Will the increase in patronage really offset those increases?’” Rohe said.

Some will thrive, he said, and others will be driven out.

Meanwhile, local retailers are already facing challenges as e-commerce is pulling business from the traditional retail model, said Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

To survive, small-business owners should strive to deliver a unique product and experience that connects with consumers.

“It is seen as a relationship,” Zoller said. “Something that is of greater value than just procuring goods.”

The good and the bad

Dain Phelan, owner, operator and busboy at Dain’s Place, a nearly 7-year-old neighborhood bar and hamburger and hotdog joint, doesn’t know what to think.

Harris Teeter will bring more people to Ninth Street, Phelan said, which is good. But he’s skeptical about some of the other stores and restaurants.

“I don’t so much like all the chains showing up,” Phelan said, along with their promotions, such as a 50 percent discount for those affiliated with Duke University. “I hate that because we can’t compete with that.”

But Phelan also said he’ll be fine because Durham consumers understand what makes his and other businesses unique.

“I think people understand that and respect that enough that a Panera Bread won’t take them away from this establishment,” he said.

When Cole first opened Charlie’s in 2001 it was “wonderful,” he said

“There were people all over the place,” he said. When restaurant, bar and market George’s Garage closed in 2009, it took a chunk of Ninth Street’s business with it, Cole said. Coupled with the recession, Charlie’s revenue dropped 40 percent, he said.

Frankly, Cole said, it’s time that Ninth Street gets some attention as the city always seems to be pushing somewhere else, such as downtown.

“We have been the redheaded stepchild of Durham,” Cole said. “Totally neglected.”

Cole thinks the city needs to fix up the streets and sidewalks, just as he has been rearranging his bar to emphasize a dance floor, adding stone to the front, windows in the back, and a yet-to-be built deck.

“We started renovating this place to try keep up with the Joneses across the street,” Cole said. “We’ve got to. We’ll get left behind.”

Parking problems

Other business owners said they have noticed more people on the street in the past six months but expressed concerns about the area’s longstanding parking challenges. The Durham City Council is exploring options, such as paid parking, to address capacity issues and revenue deficits affiliated with parking on Ninth Street.

Last week, the Durham City Council also approved an amendment to a more than $1 million private-public redevelopment agreement with CPGPI Regency Development. The agreement calls for sidewalks, new street lights and other improvements on the west side of the street. The site plan also calls for removing six trees and replanting seven, said Wesley Parham, assistant director of transportation for the city.

“I have heard the Urban Forestry section say on a number of occasions that most of these trees already have decay or are dying in the tops,” he said.

In addition, the city is exploring a competitive economic development grant program within the Ninth Street district that “would emphasize the lighting of storefronts, the enhancement of the pedestrian experience and the overall safety of Ninth Street,” a city report states.

Chris Widmayer, vice president of investments with Regency Centers, a partner and manager of the Shops at Erwin Mill, pointed out that $85 million is being invested in the area.

“It is a renaissance,” he said. “I think it is a wonderful opportunity for the neighborhood to improve it in every respect.”

Staff reporter Jim Wise contributed to this report.

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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