GARDINER — The city’s downtown has seen some changes the last few weeks.
Three businesses closed their doors and another opened, but downtown leaders say it’s not unusual for winter to be a difficult time for small businesses, especially with a holiday season that saw so much bad weather on key shopping weekends.
To counteract the difficult season, community members are organizing a cash mob at 2 p.m. Saturday to encourage more downtown spending and provide a chance for people to meet the business owners there.
The executive director of Gardiner Main Street, Patrick Wright, said he heard from business owners that winter storms on the weekends before Christmas and a power outage Christmas Eve morning hurt holiday sales, so he’s glad a community member decided to organize a cash mob on her own.
“This is a stressful time of the year on businesses. Cash flow is tight, and I think if a business has been struggling, this is a real stress test for them. We take our hats off to those that are able to stick though,” he said.
Wright said that although it’s always a concern when businesses close, the downtown performed well last year in terms of more businesses opening than closing.
Water Street Cafe, a restaurant anchoring a prominent corner in the downtown, closed its doors last month after two-and-a-half years in business. One of the owners, Robert Lash, said the business wasn’t able to find a model profitable enough to work. Bargain Hunter’s Paradise, a used clothing store, and SaraSara’s, a women’s clothing and accessory boutique, also closed last month.
Sara Leighton, owner of SaraSara’s, which also has locations in Blue Hill and Castine, said she closed the store last Friday because her longtime manager was leaving and sales had been slipping in the past year, unlike at her other locations.
“The Gardiner area is a tricky area. We were making it work the best we could,” said Leighton, of Penobscot.
The business that recently opened, however, Sunrise Natural Foods, fills a need targeted by Gardiner Main Street. Wright said a natural food store is one of several types of businesses identified as important for a mix of businesses that will complement each other.
The store, which moved last week to 410 Water St. from its location on Maine Avenue in Farmingdale, sells natural and organic food products, as well as supplements and body care products.
The owner, Karen Benner, said she originally tried finding a Gardiner location when she opened her store less than a year ago, but nothing was available.
“This was our first choice to put our business. Even though Augusta isn’t that far away, it’s far enough,” said Benner, of Farmingdale. Augusta has its own natural food store, but Benner said she would like to see Gardiner be more self-sustaining.
Kaili Henderson, owner of a couple of downtown stores, said she’s excited for the natural food store and thinks it adds another level of offerings for the downtown.
She said the winter has been tough for her businesses — The Girltrend Shop, a consignment and boutique clothing store aimed at younger women, and Funky Fashions, a consignment clothing store for kids. She’ll soon be taking over full ownership of The Girltrend Shop, she said.
“I’m taking a risk, but it’s a risk I believe will pay off in the end,” said Henderson, of Gardiner.
Clare Marron, owner of Monkitree, said she loves that a community member, Deb Files, took it upon herself to organize the cash mob Saturday.
“She knows that winter is a really hard time for small businesses. Our expenses are higher and our sales are lower,” said Marron, who also owns and lives in the building housing her art gallery and artisan craft store.
Files said she’ll be giving out prizes to the most enthusiastic participants at the cash mob. After shopping at downtown businesses, participants will meet at a local restaurant.
Marron, also a board member for Gardiner Main Street, said it makes sense that a few businesses closed soon after the holidays because it’s a time for owners to evaluate if they’ll be able to make it through the rest of the year.
“I don’t think I have particular concerns with Gardiner or the community. It’s the nature of small business,” she said.
Wright said downtown redevelopment usually includes taking two steps forward and one step back. The goal is to get enough businesses that complement each other to bring in the necessary foot traffic to sustain the downtown as a destination, he said.
The organization hopes to do that with an incentive program it plans to launch in March with the Bank of Maine and the city called Gardiner Growth Initiative. The program will allow businesses to apply for incentives, including forgivable loans for fixed capital, micro-grants for operating money and six months of free rent.
“I often tell people that it took 50 years for the decline of downtowns in general in our society, and hopefully it won’t take that long for them to come back,” Wright said. “I don’t think it will, but we need to take that long view. And I still believe in my heart of hearts that the potential for downtown Gardiner is still very great.”