DM downtown merchants struggling

With the United States economy shrinking last quarter at the fastest rate since 1982, it’s no mystery small businesses are hurting. Downtown Del Mar is no exception.

At least four stores in the Plaza have closed their doors in recent months, and some windows on Camino Del Mar are empty except for the all-too-familiar ‘For Rent’ sign.

Many who remain are not sure how much longer they will be able to stay open.

“Most of us still left have been in business a long time,” said Nancy Sokol, owner of Sundancer. “We’re all trying to make it, but we need support” - support in the form of shoppers showing up and spending money.

Ryan Gonzales, co-owner of Ryan’s Collection, didn’t parse words when describing the activity on Camino del Mar: “From here to City Hall, there’s nobody.”

Plea to shoppers

Sokol implored residents to take advantage of the deep sales the independent shops are offering before heading to department stores.

“We’re willing to make coming into the store worthwhile,” she said.

With no one buying, it makes paying for rent extremely difficult, many merchants said. While at least one landlord gave his tenants a much needed holiday gift - a rent-free December - other landlords have not been so generous.

“A lot of the buildings are totally paid off with no mortgage, yet we have landlords who will not do a thing to negotiate our leases,” Sokol said. “If rents were lowered to something realistic we could survive.”

Some landlords reportedly told their tenants they wish they could help, but can’t because they couldn’t rent out other vacant spaces. The reason was not lack of interest, but city regulations prohibiting anything but retail along Camino del Mar and 15th Street, Sokol said.

Changing the rules

The city is in the process of amending that temporary rule, to include restaurant, service providers and cultural uses. Also, for the next 12 months, any type of tenant will be allowed to move into empty spaces.

In an effort to draw more diners and shoppers into the village, the city council also approved the expansion of sidewalk cafes on 15th Street from Camino del Mar to Stratford, which will be a big benefit to Americana Cafe, Del Mar Pizza and Jimmy O’s.

Others said the city needs to address parking regulations, shortages and fees.

“If they are not going to provide parking, they can put as much retail as they want, nobody’s going to come in,” said Roza Palmer, owner of Earth Song Bookstore.

Merchants said they need to band together with the city, L’ Auberge Resort and the Del Mar Village Association to better promote the area and find new ways to attract shoppers.

Looking to the future

Without action, the street will continue to deteriorate, Gonzales said.

“It might be a year or two before we see things improve,” he said. “I think we’re going to continue to see businesses have a difficult time.”

Still, at least one merchant remained optimistic about the long-term future.

“We’re not quitters,” Palmer said. “Earth Song has been here for 40 years - we’re hoping for another 40.”