A couple of established retail businesses are leaving Columbia’s Main Street, just as the downtown area seems poised to grow.
Frame of Mind, a designer eyewear maker and art gallery will move to State Street in West Columbia by early February and Wine Down on Main, known as a close-knit community wine bar, closed its doors last month and reopened under the same name in Brevard, N.C.
Neither Frame of Mind’s owner, Mark Plessinger, nor Wine Down on Main’s owner, Patti Butler, would say they were priced out of Columbia’s Main Street real estate market. But once their leases expired, neither was willing to foot the price to stay put.
“Basically, this year has come to a point to where I’ve had to take stock and go, ‘What am I doing?’ I’ve got to start paying more attention to my business. I’m established,” Plessinger said. “People know what I’m doing. It’s time for my business to start to really take off, instead of existing and floating.”
In addition to running his eyewear business, Plessinger is also the founder of the popular downtown arts and cultural festival, First Thursdays on Main, which has blossomed into a business-oriented monthly alternative arts and social event stretching from the 1200 block of Main Street to City Hall, six blocks away.
Plessinger estimates he devotes 60 percent of his time to organizing, planning and facilitating First Thursdays on Main, which draws an average of 1,000 to 1,500 people to the Main Street area, as business stay open later to accommodate potential new customers.
But that’s not all.
The upstairs/downstairs, 950-square-foot space Plessinger’s business occupies in the 1500 block of Main Street was recently put up for sale by its owners. Plessinger and his landlord were operating on a year-to-year leasing agreement, rather than a long-term arrangement. Plessinger said he could not afford the asking price for the unit he is in, reported to be in the upper-$200,000 price range.
If someone else buys the unit, Plessinger could be faced with 60 days notice to vacate, he said, which would present an obvious challenge. “That’s hard to relocate a business in 60 days.”
Secondly, he said he needed to figure out how to put more time into his bread-and-butter business – unique, high-end eyewear. Finally, Plessinger said he had to face the reality there were no suitable alternative locations on Main Street for him to choose from for a new location for his business.
“When you start looking at the street, there isn’t a lot of move-in-ready, retail left. There actually is none,” Plessinger said. “All of the spaces that are left are going to take a certain amount of (user) investment to put into it.”
All said, Plessinger, who opened onto Main Street in mid-2007 before the massive streetscaping project and while SCE&G was still headquartered in the 21-story Palmetto Center, concluded he could best focus on putting his eyewear business on a firmer foundation by moving.
He said he signed a five-year lease on a property on State Street, with a three-year option.
Plessinger said he scouted around for new facilities along Main Street, in the Vista, Forest Acres and Five Points, where rents would all have been higher and spaces much larger than he needed. He said he also gave strong consideration to a property near Williams-Brice Stadium, which borders the city’s old warehouse district.
“We went over and looked at the space (along State Street), and it is downright gorgeous,” Plessinger said. His landlord is former S.C. Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor, who has purchased and renovated property in the area, Plessinger said.
‘Didn’t make good business sense’
Butler also is an important cog in the new fabric that is emerging as Main Street. She nurtured a wine bar that had a growing, fiercely loyal clientele and was a full participant of the First Thursdays on Main events.
But she encountered some of the same challenges as Plessinger.
“Unfortunately, Main Street, that whole (1500) block, sits up underneath a condo association (condos compose the units above street level), and as a business owner it really makes no sense to pay for a mortgage for the unit, plus taxes, then a regime fee of almost $400 a month on top of that,” Butler said, for a relatively small space.
“It didn’t make good business sense,” said Butler, who operated Wine Down on Main for three years.
The 990-square-foot unit Butler occupied was sold for $204,000, she said, and the new owner plans to put his real estate offices there.
“We really focused on wine,” Butler said, offering more than 35 varieties by the glass, and a few bottled beers. “No TV – it was all about community, conversation, passion about wine.”
Butler said she searched for a place along Main Street, hoping to relocate.
“And, either the spaces were way too big, or they needed way too much work,” she said. “People own these buildings down there and they expect someone to come in and lease it, and basically put all the work into it, and all their money into it – and it’s a lease!”
“I expect to have (at least) some good walls and flooring when I get there,” Butler said.
She said her move to Brevard in western North Carolina near Asheville was prompted, in part, by the end of her lease, the difficulty and expense of finding a suitable new space along Main Street, and the fact she has family in that area of North Carolina.
“When all this happened and there really wasn’t a great pIace on Main Street, I just decided I’m just going to go and focus on the bar, and maybe one day I’ll come back to Columbia,” Butler said.