Tough Times Bring Barracks Row Businesses Together

Posted March 18, 2003 at 2:43pm

It’s just been one thing after another assaulting the businesses on Barracks Row. First it was the sniper attacks, then the street construction, coupled with the slumping economy, which led to bad Christmas sales. Then the January peace march and all the snow left customers turning elsewhere.

[IMGCAP(1)] Bill McCleod, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street, estimates that businesses along Barracks Row have collectively lost between 40 percent and 50 percent of their yearly revenue because of the construction. “The businesses are numb at this point,” he said.

Rodney Smith, owner of Capitol Hill Sporting Goods, grew up in the Barracks Row neighborhood and decided to open his store there in June knowing the upcoming street project would affect business.

“I have felt the wrath,” Smith said. “My Christmas sales were just raggedy and now I have to mark my stuff down 70 percent just to liquidate my inventory.”

Jorge Zamorano, owner of Starfish and The Banana Cafe, two popular restaurants in the area, admits to being hit hard by construction, especially during the lunch hour.

“We’re close to the Metro, but people like to drive and park,” Zamorano said. “I had a party of 35 cancel their reservation specifically because of our lack of parking.”

Parking has proved proved problematic for Brice’s Barber Shop as well. Manager Butch Short said roughly 35 percent of customers have stopped coming in because they don’t have anywhere to park.

“The patrons that usually come in during the week try to come in on Saturday when there’s no construction, but that’s not always possible,” Short said.

The merchants are doing their best to come up with innovative ideas to maintain the customers they have while continuing to attract new ones despite the current obstacles.

During the January peace march, Smith had to close his doors to prevent it from being a bathroom stop. But he was able to offset his losses by selling hot chocolate and cider in addition to hats and gloves to the chilled marchers. Smith plans to return to the sidewalks this spring with heavily discounted sidewalk sales to attract customers.

For Chinese New Year, merchants borrowed an idea from their own Sissy Webb, owner of Frame of Mine, a do-it-yourself custom frame shop. To celebrate Chinese New Year, Webb has given customers a fortune cookie with a discount inside for the past 16 years. Discounts range anywhere from 10 percent off to free. “It has become our customers’ most favorite sale,” Webb said.

Other Barracks Row businesses, such as Szechuan House and Hoopla Traders, found moderate success with the fortune cookie sale. Unlike Webb’s discount, which is given at the time of purchase, the other merchants gave the 10 percent to 25 percent discount off the next visit in hopes of generating return business.

Capitol Hill Bikes offered customers the option of having their bikes picked up and delivered to avoid the hassle of maneuvering through the construction. Store manager Chris Militello said few customers took advantage of the program.

“Keeping the open sign on and letting people know we’re still here has been important,” Militello said. “As soon as the concrete had set, our bikes went back out.”

Militello said while they have struggled the past few months, their base clientele on the Hill have been understanding.

“The concern from the neighborhood has been good,” Zamorano said. “ I have customers that come to The Banana Cafe or Starfish specifically to help us out because they know we’re hurting now.”

Though they are struggling now, the business owners all spoke of how important these growing pains are to the future of their community and the increased potential the improvements will mean to their businesses.

“There is a bit of hardship to begin with but I know the end result is going to be so fabulous it will be worth it,” Webb said.

Starbucks is sure Barracks Row will be worth it too. Starbucks announced a new location opening in the old Payless ShoeSource at 401 Eighth St. SE later this year.