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Will King Street still be the same as it ever was?

The Advocate

King Street is changing.

We remember those great days, not that long ago, when we shopped many wonderful local stores that now survive only in our memories. We remember when King Street was quieter, parking was easier and people were friendlier.

Charleston Paints was a staple and it carried the real OW-18 paint. But set in a fast-paced retail environment it was a virtual period piece. Retail survival depends on change and although change wasn’t good for Charleston Paints, change has proven to be a savior for King Street.

A hundred years ago, King Street was one of the greatest shopping streets in the world. And it still is! In 2011, U.S. News listed King Street along with Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue, Michigan Avenue and Boston’s Newbury Street as one of the top shopping streets in America.

Many other Main Streets haven’t fared well. Just 60 years ago, Westminster Street in Providence and Washington Street in Indianapolis were the thriving retail hubs of those cities; today they’re retail graveyards. Just 37 years ago, the Citadel Mall was built and now…

So how has Charleston’s King Street remained at the top? And with all the change, pressures and problems, can it stay there?

“When the Navy Yard closed, we picked up the tourism banner,” said Mariana Hay of Croghan’s Jewel Box. “That’s what’s happened to change Charleston to make everything better. The influx of people, the money, the restaurants…”

“Our business was always that more people came in the back door than the front door. It was like that for my mother’s and most of my generation,” Hay said. But during the last five-to-ten years that customer mix has changed to 60 percent tourists and 40 percent local.

Other retailers agree that tourism has been a boon. Steve Berlin says, “tourism has been pretty good for Berlin’s and a lot of tourists come back year after year.” Rebecca Steinberg at Finicky Filly said, “Traffic is up and our business is 70 percent tourism.” Danny Riddle who’s been serving customers for 24 years at Grady Ervin believes that, “Charleston has become an international city” and along with others on the street, he credits his store’s customer service as the reason “we’re getting repeat out-of-state trade.”

Like Steinberg and Riddle, Hay believes that “the jewelry business is also a relationship business,” but she admits retail itself is changing. Last month this iconic store sold a very expensive ring on its website to someone no one had ever met from many states away. “It’s a balance in many ways and we have to adapt,” she added.

When pressed, every retailer will admit there are some not-so-positive changes. Gary Flynn, CEO at Dumas, says that “when Charleston was named the best city in the world, on the planet or in the universe, a different type of tourist chased away the guy who would come in multiple times a year and buy complete outfits. The new customer just is looking for an item here or there.”

Flynn agrees with Hay that the customer has changed, “but,” he says, “we’re not the same store we were 35, 50 or 100 years ago, either.”

“The cruise ship tourist … they’re, like, looking for a deal, ‘what’s on sale?’ they ask,” said Camille Rhoden, manager of Half Moon Outfitters. Because of the specialty items there, some of the tourists come to get staff knowledge about products, only to leave and buy them online where they think they might be cheaper. “Right now it’s not a healthy balance, it’s much more tourism.”

Rebekah Riley at Christian Michi says cruise ship tourists are Target or Wal-Mart customers who don’t buy anything in her shop. “They’re kind people, but it’s as if they’re taking a museum tour through the store, they take a lot of time and we try to give everyone a good experience.”

Riley also hit on another issue shared by other retailers and locals alike, “There are more chain stores moving in and a lot of smaller businesses are being pushed out.”

In spite of the loss of those legendary local stores, the balance of local to chain stores has remained steady over the past five years according to Jordan Lanier, business services manager for the city. Last year, it was 60 percent local, 13 percent regional and 27 percent national. However, Lauren Gallatly, community development director of Lowcountry Local First, suggests that what may have changed over the years are the types of local businesses.

“The growth northward on King Street has increased at light speed during the last 10 years,” Gellatly said. “What was the Design District has faded and has become the food and beverage district with less daytime retail activity and a lot more nighttime tourist activity.” Many of those bars and restaurants may be locally owned, but they don’t represent the same type of businesses that were lost.

Especially disturbing to locals are two more emerging problems. Panhandlers have taken to partially blocking King Street’s narrow sidewalks and some are verbally aggressive. The city recently responded with a new ordinance banning panhandling on King between Line and Broad Streets and along Market Street and the city’s Dan Riccio, director of livability and tourism, believes, “It’s getting better.” He notes that the city is establishing a daytime homeless shelter to include counseling and other services.

Then there are the beauty hustlers. “It’s not the Southern way to stand in the doorway and accost people to come in the door. It’s intimidation, they guilt the person into coming in,” one retailer said. “They’re obnoxious, they get indignant with people and take advantage of the elderly” said another. Riccio said some are following people, even touching them and that “the city has issued five fines involving four locations,” adding, “Another ordinance may be added.”

Maintaining all the balances will be the key to King Street’s future success. There must be a balance between locals and tourists, big stores and small shops, chain stores and local businesses, the mix of residential, office and retail and between traditional retail and essential businesses.

King Street is successful because of its human scale, 18th and 19th century architecture and ambiance. The long, narrow street creates an intimate yet grand space and the parapets, cornices and friezes enhance the appeal. King Street would be a splendid attraction without stores.

Yet King Street’s continued success as the heart of Charleston is far from ensured. Parts of King Street are healthy with local retail, but high rental costs and the allure of quick money from opening bars, restaurants and hotels has altered the mix of businesses. The balance is tipping from a livable, attractive city into a tourist town. As on Upper King, the city can stand by and let market forces prevail, or it can foster more local business and mixed uses that will keep the street vital, alive and uniquely Charleston.

“When you put two million into remodeling a building, that tax bill might go from $19,000 to $60,000. If the city wanted to encourage different uses for these buildings, say residential or offices, it could keep those tax rates a lot lower,” suggests Chris Price, president of The PrimeSouth Group.

Sounds like a short-term loss for a terrific long-term gain.

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until June of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

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