Durham's Ninth Street sees changes and challenges

vbridges@newsobserver.comJune 2, 2014 

  • Charlie’s memorabilia auction

    Mike Cole plans to host an auction for some of his sports memorabilia that lines the restaurant and bar at 1 p.m. Saturday at Charlie’s Pub & Grille, 758 Ninth St., Durham.

— As he watches his 13-year-old business fade away, Mike Cole is trapped between loss and uncertainty.

“It’s like a parent watching a child die slowly,” said Cole, 58. “This has been my baby forever.”

One moment, Cole said, he wants to explain the details behind losing his lease on the building that houses his sports-themed restaurant and bar, Charlie’s Pub & Grille, but he fears it will dash any hope that the owners of the property will let him stay.

In another moment, Cole concedes that staying doesn’t appear to be a viable option as the building’s owners have hired a real estate company, which has been showing the space to prospective tenants. Cole said he pays $4,000 a month for the space that is now being offered for about $6,133 a month.

“We are still here,” Cole said. “And we are going to be here until we get kicked out.”

Messages left on a cellphone for the property’s owners, identified on the voicemail prompt as Thompson and Associates, weren’t returned.

Charlie’s closing is “huge,” said John Valentine, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop, which has been selling books on Ninth Street since 1976. The closing marks one of the first public signs of the tension between building owners and business owners that will no doubt follow the infusion of new and big businesses to the quirky street, Valentine said.

The influx, coupled with an improving market, will likely be followed by increasing tax values, higher rents and sell outs.

“You can’t fault them for doing that,” Valentine said. “That’s the marketplace, but it’s a shame to see it happen.”

Ninth Street an “incubator”

For decades, Ninth Street has been an incubator for small businesses, ranging from Wellspring Grocery, which was bought out by Whole Foods Market, to Ninth Street Bakery, now on East Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham.

Then there are the quirky, uniquely Durham Ninth Street mainstays, such as The Regulator and 27-year-old Francesca’s Dessert Caffe, which was bought in 2012 from its original three owners.

In November, Harris Teeter opened on the corner of Ninth Street and Hillsborough Road. Panera Bread, a hair-drying salon, a fitness outlet and a massage studio also occupy some of the 13 spaces at the Shops at Erwin Mill, which line the west side of Ninth Street in renovated buildings, and have well-lit, accessible parking lots. The adjacent Crescent Ninth Street plans to start renting its 303 high-end apartments in June.

In contrast, the east side of Ninth Street is lined with independent businesses in aging buildings mainly owned by different individuals and families. Those businesses’ customers park on the street or in a city lot that recently added a fee of a $1 per hour.

Still, some of the owners of those independent businesses said they are benefiting from the changes.

“We are having a fantastic year,” said Jody Lytton, owner of Chubby’s Tacos. As of April, the Ninth Street Chubby’s is about $26,000 ahead in revenue compared to the same time last year.

Valentine said he has also seen a lot of new faces crossing the street or walking from the Hilton Garden Inn that opened just around the corner on Main Street.

“We have people say, ‘You must be across the street from Panera,’ ” he said. “We say, ‘Wait, no. They are across the street from us.’ 

Another change on the street includes the city charging $1 an hour for parking in its 45-space lot on the west side of Ninth Street, just next to the main parking lot for the Shops at Erwin Mill. Fees are collected at a pay station on the lot.

Shop owners said they weren’t really sure how the paid parking would affect the street, which has struggled with a lack of parking options for years. Lytton and Dain Phelan, owner of Dain’s Place, a neighborhood bar and hamburger and hot dog joint, said their customers have benefitted from the parking lots associated with Harris Teeter and the Shops at Erwin Mill. They are concerned, they said, that the paid parking may result in the owners of that development cracking down on their lot.

Phelan hopes that owners of the parking lot will allow the customers of their shops to cross the street.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a beer before you go fight the crowd in a grocery store,” he said. “That’s my philosophy.”

Chris Widmayer, vice president of investments with Regency Centers, a partner and manager of the Shops at Erwin Mill, said company representatives are pleased that their neighbors along Ninth Street are benefiting from the new activity on the street.

“At the same time, we have to ensure that our tenants have sufficient parking to operate successful businesses, and their feedback will help us manage parking patterns and demands at the center,” he said.

Revenue declines at Charlie’s

While Cole is disappointed, Charlie’s Bar & Grille has survived years while other places have opened and closed on Ninth Street. In general, about half of all new establishments survive five or more years and about one-third survive 10 or more, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

When Cole opened Charlie’s in December 2001, he envisioned a neighborhood bar atmosphere.

“We had Superior Court judges sitting beside Hells Angels,” Cole said. “We had every walk of life.”

For the first eight years, Charlie’s was doing so well, it was hard to believe it wouldn’t continue, Cole said. “Pennies falling from heaven. And you think they are going to fall forever.”

About five years ago, Cole walked into Charlie’s on a Monday ready to start a five-day week of serving lunch to an average of about 650 people. Only 10 people were there, he said. It was the same the next day and then the next.

“I don’t know why because our food didn’t change. Our employees didn’t change,” he said. “Maybe that was the problem.”

After the recession and the adjacent restaurant George’s Garage closed in 2009, Charlie’s’ revenue dropped 40 percent, he said.

Cole said he learned that the building’s owners wanted to take a different direction in December. The business stopped taking credit cards and serving food for a while last week as his employeesfound other jobs. Cole said he plans to resume food service this week as he just hired one person to fill in while he remains there.

Cole said he’s recently explored opening something in other locations, but renting in Durham is more expensive than he expected. If he did get to stay, he said, he would move away from the sports concept.

“Something like a Jimmy Buffett bar,” he said. “Bright colors and palm trees. All types of exotic drinks.”

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

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