Malls aren’t the only retail outlets dealing with a drop of foot traffic. Elmwood Avenue from Allen Street to Forest Avenue in the City of Buffalo is starting to look like a ghost town.
Thirty-one empty storefronts mark the stretch. The vacancies – at a 17 percent rate – deeply concern other business owners and community leaders. Elmwood has been known for its eclectic stores, restaurants, boutiques and food markets. It has been the place to take a stroll, walk the dog and run into a friend who might suggest grabbing a bite a few doors down.
But things have changed. The internet has offered a platform for companies like Amazon, which will deliver just about anything someone could find in the local mall, or retail shop. The difference is transactions can be done from the comfort of home. Or, from a smartphone while walking the dog. In that, its challenges are similar to those affecting Eastern Hills Mall. But as an urban strip, they are also different. Protecting it will require creative thinking.
Ashley Smith noted the “alarming amount of vacancies,” citing 7 percent as a health rate of vacancy. Still, the executive director of Elmwood Village Association is not overly concerned. Vacancies are high, she said, “where blocks are in transition.”
Elmwood Avenue still has its thriving shops and restaurants, and in some cases vacancies are quickly filled. Urban Leisure and Luxury is an example. It closed its doors in August after 25 years and was filled less than two months later with a Ten Thousand Villages shop. That’s good news. But big challenges await as the closure of Women & Children’s Hospital exerts its influence. Plans are to redevelop that site, but it will be a long-term project.
The problem calls for rethinking and reinvention. The old model has been broken, so the question is how to work to make the new one fit.
Joel P. Feroleto of the Delaware District and Majority Leader David A. Rivera of the Niagara planned to meet with State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo. Feroleto has suggested a Commercial Lease Assistance Program for Elmwood merchants. It would be similar to one offered small business owners in New York City, perhaps working with nonprofit legal entities that would go over lease agreements, as an example. He also suggested an advisory group to explore forming a business association. The other idea is to possibly get state assistance for facade improvements and curb appeal.
Whether it’s Elmwood or Eastern Hills Mall, the model is changing, though in different ways. Those who can figure out how to manage the change will survive and thrive.