For Christmas, independent businesses want customers

LITHIA

The scent of freshly-brewed coffee fills the java-colored store.

As the afternoon sun filters through the windows, Kevin Brownell prepares for the next day in the kitchen.

Brownell, co-owner of DaSilva's Coffee on FishHawk Boulevard, doesn't want to disappoint those customers who might come for his paninis, salads, breakfast sandwiches or fresh-baked muffins. And don't forget the coffee.

That's the whole reason he sunk his life's savings into this shop.

"I don't know how many people come through our drive-through and hand us (other) cups of coffee to throw away," Brownell said. "We offer them something they can't get around here.

"I just hope we can keep doing that."

Like many independent business owners in strip malls, Brownell struggles to stay afloat during the economic downturn. Across the country, and right here in east Hillsborough County, the recession and its many tentacles has many smaller proprietors fighting to stay open while they try to attract customers.

They have hopes that this shopping season, which officially kicks into gear today with the arrival of Black Friday, will help lift them out of the doldrums.

But it's hard to keep positive when the economy still looks grim.

"Things have slowed considerably for a variety of reasons, all economic," said JR Duprell, partner of Tampa's Shopping Center Group, a firm that acts as brokers for retailer and shopping center owners.

"From the tenant side of things, there's no building going on, which makes it hard to find good store locations," Duprell said. "There's no credit available for construction. And because there's no credit available, that's also putting the squeeze on small businesses."

Without the loans mom-and-pop stores once used to expand into new locations, commercial real estate owners are losing rental income, he said.

"It's a mess."

What's more, economic experts warn of another real estate storm brewing in the world of commercial property. They expect shopping centers, office buildings and industrial property values to drop by 40 percent in the next two years, according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Land Institute.

That could lead to defaults and vacancies, according to the annual report of real estate executives.

But foreclosure already weighs heavily on Brownell's mind.

He moved his coffee shop from a Riverview strip mall two years ago, thinking that the newer locale across from an entrance to FishHawk Ranch would attract more customers.

He didn't expect to be one of a few businesses left in a half-empty shopping mall.

"We all thought this area was growth, growth, growth," Brownell said. "FishHawk was going to add a few thousand homes, and the people who built this complex were in the business of building and selling."

Then the economy fell apart. Brownell said he's stuck with an over-priced lease signed when things were good. And there's no guarantee of what's going to happen to the building now that it's in foreclosure.

"No one's making any money," he said. "We're all trying to cover rent."

On top of the stress of high rent, some shop owners also find it hard to increase traffic to their locations. They notice customers browsing more and thoroughly weighing their purchases.

A lack of sales is what led Hit the Trails owner Stephen Dunn to decide he needed to pack up and move his store to a new location. He plans to relocate this weekend.

For the past four years, Dunn has been trying to get more people into his running store at FishHawk Ranch Park Square, tucked within the subdivision.

"It seemed like a great location, but it didn't turn out the way I thought it would," Dunn said. "When the economy slowed the housing market down, that had a big effect."

He hopes that his new spot, about 3 miles away, will give him more visibility just in time for the holidays.

"I'm still in business," he said, "and that's a good thing."

Troubles also abound for small business owners who have what would seem the perfect location.

In Brandon at the Grand Regency plaza, Vera Cassell can't get the upswing in sales she expected. A year ago, she moved her wig and hair salon from east Tampa closer to her home in east Hillsborough.

Working out of a bigger space, in a plaza that includes T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, she thought paying higher rent for her new space was a no-brainer. Cassell, 61, gambled and bet that offering ethnic hair styling, combined with 22-years of experience in customized wig fittings, would attract clientele.

But when the economy plummeted, so did her investor funding. Instead of staying put and losing money she had already spent for her new location, Cassell used everything she had to make the move happen.

And she's losing big.

"I don't have the money to really market," Cassell said. "I find it frustrating because there is always someone out there getting ready to take chemotherapy or dealing with hair-loss issues. I can help."

Because of the economy and other complications, she has put off expanding her business to include post-masectomy products. But that wasn't before the lettering on her storefront went up, advertising to people that she already carries the products.

"It's just sickening when people come in and ask," she said.

Like Brownell and other independent business owners, Cassell believes in her vision. She holds out the hope that she's going to make it.

"It's my livelihood," she said. "This is all I do."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or 661-2454.

fast facts

The Independents

In an area dominated by chain restaurants, big-box retailers and near-ubiquitous franchises, independent business owners risk failure as they battle for name recognition and customers in a crowded marketplace. The Small Business Administration reports that just half of small businesses survive after five years. This occasional series profiles the trials, challenges and victories of local entrepreneurs as they seek to bring their unique flavor to an increasingly brand-savvy clientele.

For Christmas, independent businesses want customers 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 3:30am]

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