Don Pinney knows everything that’s changed on Franklin Street since 1964.
A lifelong resident of Chapel Hill, Pinney has owned Sutton’s Drug Store for 42 years after he started working there at 14 years old.
He remembers the Gap where Walgreens is, the hardware store where Tama Tea was, the bookstore where Chapel Hill Sportswear is and the Belk where Aveda was. Most of the retail closed in the early 1980s, he said.
“I just wish we could step back and look at it the way it was years ago,” he said.
It's risky business for restaurants on Franklin Street. After Silent Sam protests and a somber football season, some businesses say this was their worst year yet.
Kristian Bawcom, the owner of Four Corners, said they had three and a half years of growth until the end of August 2018. Then, they were down double-digit percentages up until November.
Bawcom said on the nights of protests, their dinner sales significantly declined because not everybody wanted to be near a protest that could turn violent.
“Just from a business standpoint, people who own businesses in the area, it’s just the inconsistency of not knowing what you’re going to be dealing with, versus each time there was a protest, it was costing people money,” he said.
Many businesses on Franklin Street lost foot traffic when the first home football game was canceled because of Hurricane Florence.
Along with the cancellation of one of the biggest home football games, the scheduling of the games was detrimental to sales, Bawcom said. He said many of the games were at noon, and people would roll out of bed instead of planning the day around something special.
“Whereas when it’s a 6 o’clock game or a 7 or 8 o’clock game, it becomes a calendar event where people are like ‘OK let’s go to Franklin, let’s grab some dinner, we’ll go to the game, we’ll have some beers afterward,’” Bawcom said.
There were only two home football games in September and October 2018.
“A lot of the businesses struggle in the summertime with the lack of foot traffic from students, and so all of sudden, everybody is looking for big sporting events, students coming back in September and October, and this year was super lackluster,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot to motivate people to get excited about people coming downtown.”
Greg Overbeck, the owner of Lula’s, said this was not the year they hoped it would be for the restaurant in its first year. Overbeck said the Silent Sam protests did not help sales or the overall feeling of Franklin Street, and the football season was a disaster for all businesses.
“If we win, (people) want to stay around, and celebrate and go to their old favorites and revisit some of the places they went to when they were students,” he said. “But if we lose, then they don’t want to stay around town because there’s not that good feeling that people want to go out and celebrate.”
Overbeck said restaurants struggle on Franklin Street because there are too many restaurants and limited parking.
As of February 2018, there were 71 restaurants, 15 bars and 28 retail businesses downtown. In 2017, 13 restaurants opened and 16 closed.
“All you have to do is drive up Franklin Street at 7 p.m. on a weeknight, and you’ll see a lot of empty restaurants,” he said.
Compared to the 2016-2017 year, attendance for attractions and tours in the county decreased by more than 100,000 people last year.
Bawcom said the Town needs to regulate how many restaurants are on Franklin Street, and that they need to create more demand instead of watching all these restaurants fail.
Chapel Hill Town Council Member Nancy Oates said the Town can’t create a market that isn’t there. She said the Town created an app to let people know where there are parking spaces, and they are looking to adding another level to the Wallace Parking Deck.
Executive Director of Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership Matt Gladdek said they are working with the Town to create better data for parking usage to make better policy decisions where parking is needed.
"One of the things that the partnership is doing and looking to find ways to do better is to make sure people know where parking is available," he said.
Pinney said delivery services have also made it difficult for their business to be successful. He said students on South Campus don’t want to walk 30 minutes to Franklin Street when they can just go to the dining halls that are on their way. And then, he said, if a person drives, they put about $2.50 in the parking meter when they can instead just pay about $5.00 for delivery.
“We count on the traffic count on the streets to help us pay our bills,” he said.
Chris Carini, the owner of Linda’s, said this was the worst fiscal year for losses and hardships since he bought the restaurant in 2011.
He said they lost 12 to 20 percent of sales on a day of protests, depending on if the roads were closed and which protest was happening. In the week of Hurricane Florence and the cancellation of the first home football game, Linda’s lost about $33,000, he said.
“That’s a tenth or fifth of my people’s tips, that’s rent, that’s laundry, that’s a lot of things,” he said. “I pay people well — if I don’t have people on living wage, I’m damn close to it.”
Carini said he thinks absentee ownership is what kills restaurants on Franklin Street.
“Rents are high, involvement by ownership is low and that is not the way to run a restaurant,” he said. “What’s the key to doing it — work, you can’t be afraid to work.”
He said there is a lot of homogeneity of businesses on Franklin Street with restaurant after restaurant.
“If the rents of the buildings were commenced with the business that could be in them, we would have more diversity of businesses,” he said. “But when you have to spend 8,9, $10,000 a month just for the rent, that means you need to be doing over a $100,000 in business just to keep the doors open — Easiest way to do it: sell booze.”
But not all businesses had their worst year. Owner of Carolina Coffee Shop Jeff Hortman said this was the best year they’ve had in a long time due to ownership, team and menu changes.
“I really can’t say that we felt a big impact from Silent Sam and the activities around that,” he said. “Our business is much less in the evenings so that’s probably why we didn’t feel that foot traffic decline.”
Pinney said to survive Franklin Street, you have to be able to adapt.
“The difficulty of staying on Franklin Street is being able to ride the waves, and that’s the key,” he said.
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