Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Downtown Napa: right mix of stores needed

Published NVR Editorial page
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June 24th, 2009

Downtown Napa: right mix of stores needed
By John Olney
When is it news reporting or is it editorial?

Sunday’s (June 14) Napa Valley Register donated many column inches to the downtown Napa area with the primary focus on all the new office, retail and lodging facilities that have recently opened and/or are about to be open. When first I read the articles, I had a hard time accepting them as “news” when they read like a press release from a building owners’ trade association.

Everything was so cheery and full of exhilaration about great expectations of customers dashing to the streets to shop, the restaurants to eat and lodging facilities to sleep. There was even the expectation that the office and retail store workers would be a major boon to shop owners.

Unfortunately, where are these folks going to shop? I have yet to hear of any new-name stores signing up in either the old or new building street level stores, except for the Subway and two to three yet-to-be-named restaurants.

I seriously doubt anybody will be flying from Boston, New York, Paris or Vienna to eagerly shop at McCaulou’s or the soon-to-be-Kohl’s department store. None of the small shops along the major downtown streets are the shops associated to Rodeo Drive-Beverly Hills, Santana Row-San Jose, downtown Walnut Creek or even Union Square in San Francisco; you know, big-name, upscale art, jewelry, pottery, wood, glass and china studios, designer fashions and other such top-of-the-line shopping amenities. I have driven and walked around downtown Napa for years and have always wondered why so many local shops are closed on Sunday. Obviously, they don’t need the visitor dollars.

Another Register article on Sunday was about why the Beaded Nomad moved to Petaluma; it illustrates the dilemma of downtown commercial buildings.

There are many downtown fine-dining restaurant facilities that are certainly very good, but with the exception of less than a handful they are very much less known by travelers than those of Yountville and St. Helena. Locals already know about and use these Napa restaurants. Of course, it must be recognized that there are no full bar service night clubs, etc., to excite both locals and visitors.

Then we come to the lodging facilities. In the true meaning of a “downtown lodging and immediate shopping district,” there are only three, of which one is new and just now opening. Counting the more distant two on the other side of the wide Soscol Avenue, and located along the banks of the Napa River Oxbow, that brings the total to five lodging facilities in real proximity to the downtown retail shopping store streets.

I suspect that there is probably a relatively small percentage of these lodgers shopping downtown at any given time. Then of course, this number is driven by whatever the occupancy rate is at the time at these establishments.

If the lodgers go Upvalley for wine tasting, they most likely left to start at about 10 a.m. and by the time they return to Napa (5-6 p.m.), most of the shops are closed for the day.

Few shops are open for extended evening shopping, except during the holidays.

Now we come to all the office space that suddenly opened in the new buildings added to all the vacant older building office space. But, the articles point out that there is a large volume of both new and old office space which is vacant. I cannot help but wonder why the office rental space in new buildings really means new customers, unless it was businesses that were previously located in different towns. From what I see, it is businesses that were in different Napa buildings that opted to move to the new building. Thus the workers were already familiar with the shopping available in downtown Napa and that means they are not new customers.

I do not want all thinking that I’m raining on the parade of downtown Napa. I personally think that all the new buildings are very good-looking and give a refreshing breath to the “skyline.” However, realistically speaking, building architecture and newness alone are not going to reel in the shopper.

With the new buildings comes higher rent and that means the owners have to isolate what products to offer the consumer so that that consumer will come and buy them. When they accomplish this, the retail store can afford to pay the higher rent.

Consumers do not follow buildings, they chase products; and that is why Rodeo Drive, Santana Row, Union Square and Walnut Creek are such magnets to consumers. That is also why the Napa outlet stores are the next busiest consumer attraction — local and visitor alike — after the wineries!

(Olney lives in Napa.)

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