It’s 10:30 a.m., halfway between the breakfast and lunch rush, and waitress Rebecca Kronenberg is serving customers at 10 tables.
Ziggy’s Café is packed.
The activity inside the business is a dichotomy from what can be found just outside the doors at the Westbrook Shopping Center in Havelock. On one side of the café, there are three empty store fronts, and on the other, there are five.
Despite the lack of surrounding businesses to potentially draw in customers, Ziggy’s Café is thriving.
“I’d like to have some neighbors, absolutely,” said Anthony Radicella, who has owned Ziggy’s for 10 of the last 20 years. “I’d love to have some more traffic going through the shopping center, but we do what we can. I would like to have more neighbors, yes.”
Radicella said that the restaurant has loyal customers who keep business good.
He said rent in the shopping center went up about three years ago, causing some businesses to leave.
“When everybody moved out, we couldn’t,” he said, adding that the rent had not increased in the 17 previous years. “It would have cost me more in gas and equipment to move.”
The Westbrooke Shopping Center is not the only area in Havelock with empty retail space. Just east, another office complex has signs offering free rent for three months, but the complex is mostly empty.
Katrina Marshall, Havelock planning director, said a recent survey showed that 54 retail units or business buildings were vacant in Havelock, including 19 new vacancies in 2014.
But the news isn’t all bad, as 17 vacant spaces were newly rented in 2014. At Westbrooke, there’s a sign for a new Jamaican restaurant that has plans to open soon, and the Pinay Grocery recently opened in a complex off West Main Street near where Goody’s opened in 2013.
Marshall said two other empty structures were demolished.
“So basically 19 came off the list and 19 new ones went on the list,” Marshall said. “There has been activity, but there is no net change in the numbers.”
Vacant buildings are not unique to Havelock, said Timothy Downs, director of economic development for Craven County.
“What we’re experiencing here is pretty much true for all areas of the country right now,” he said. “That issue is affected by a lot of factors. First of all, it’s the economy. Retail took a huge hit, especially small retail, when the economy started performing poorly a few years ago. It’s just starting to come back. The amount of time to recover from that, especially in a small community like ours, is much longer than a larger community like Atlanta or Raleigh. That’s the primary factor.”
He said snapping fingers and getting large chain stores to move in just doesn’t happen. He said large retailers are very formulaic in the way they make decisions to locate in an area. Most use demographic studies that include data on population and income, and many have their own particular store designs and won’t go into existing spaces.
“We might perceive enough traffic going in front of a building to warrant a restaurant or a certain type of store but it just might not fit their model, or if it’s a franchise-type situation, they might not have someone who has been willing to take on that area. That’s one part of it,” Downs said.
He said the appearances of retail complexes and shopping centers can also have an effect on attracting new business. Plus, he said, business owners may not want to locate in a complex with empty retail spaces because the amount of customer traffic may not be high.
“Where I came from in Dayton, Ohio, is a perfect example of that where you had a downtown that just suffered from empty space after empty space after empty space and people see that and it just becomes sort of a self-perpetuating thing that you have empty space and people don’t want to be there where there’s empty space,” Downs said. “They want to be where there’s a lot of people.”
As for a solution to all the empty business space, Downs said redevelopment is sometimes an option, but tearing down an old complex to build a new one — with no guarantees of new businesses coming in — can be daunting for property owners and developers.
“Building new, in places like Havelock, can only happen if you tear other stuff down and that’s a hard subject to wrestle with,” Downs said. “Some might suggest tearing down that old shopping center. Well, there’s significant cost in that and you don’t necessarily have something to fill that space, so redevelopment has to be looked at with a very sharp eye.”
Even just sprucing up a complex can be costly. In 2012, Ken Schulte, owner of the Slocum Shopping Center, said he spent six figures on a new façade and signs at his complex that houses 10 retail stores, but the improvements were noticed. The Havelock Chamber of Commerce presented Schulte with a business appearance award, and business owners in the complex said they received compliments on the new look from customers.
But, as Havelock Mayor Will Lewis admits, other complexes in the city need improvement.
“There are places in Havelock that could still use a little bit of help,” he said. “The economy is a huge factor and owners just don’t have a lot of money to throw into that, and if they do, they are on an extremely tight budget and doing just the bare minimums to make it look a little bit better.”
Some cities offer financial incentives to business owners to make building improvements, but Lewis said the city does not. He said some federal money could be available to help.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities like that that will make a huge difference,” Lewis said. “Our board is committed to making our city look like an inviting place and that includes our businesses, too.”