Downtown Provo is not the best place for retail
Not everyone would label downtown Provo as successful. Two local business owners, Ted Schofield of Heindselman’s and Rick Taylor of Taylor Maid, think Provo suffers from a lack of retail. In fact, Schofield claims that Provo city seems to favor restaurants over retail, going as far as to actively work against retail in the area.
“We’ve managed to eliminate almost all retailing in downtown Provo,” says Schofield.
Taylor agrees, saying that “anyone who has eyes can see,” that the city favors restaurants over retail. “Go down the street, see how many restaurants you got versus how many retail stores you got. It didn’t used to be that way,” says Taylor. “Provo used to be a shopping place.”
Taylor and Schofield aren’t the only ones who think that the city favors restaurants over retail. “The city has no financial skin in the game, so to speak. As far as any business goes, they’re not invested,” says Jared Neiswender, co-owner of Mozz pizzeria. “There [are] no financial incentives. There [are] no tax breaks. It’s just capitalism at play here.”
Where did all the retail go?
Provo City’s Economic Development Director, Keith Morey says he’s never heard anybody with the city express or show an “agenda” suggesting the city supports restaurants over any other type of business in downtown Provo. Rather, Morey suggested that a perceived lack of retail is just a result of the times.
“Retail has suffered dramatically over the last decade or so because of online purchasing options and other things like that,” says Morey. “So if businesses feel like there are more restaurants in the downtown area, that’s not an agenda. It’s probably just a reflection of what’s happening in the retail market.”
Dean Judd, owner of Guru’s on Center Street, said he and other restaurant owners would love to see more retail come in. Judd points to a lack of housing in downtown Provo as part of the problem. At Guru’s, he says a large portion of his business is feeding the workforce. “The retail that does tend to come in here [doesn’t] usually last very long,” Judd said. “If I was a retailer, I wouldn’t come into downtown. It’s just not a retail place.”
Peterson says the turnover in downtown happens because most, if not all, shops are locally owned and more vulnerable to changes in the market. “We don’t have chains downtown,” Peterson says. “Even though that means they’re really cool businesses, it also means they’re fragile and susceptible to failure … they don’t have millions of dollars of capital from some corporate umbrella to protect them when there’s a shift in the economy.”
Peterson agrees that e-commerce has played a large role in diminishing retail, while restaurants haven’t been as affected. “Amazon doesn’t replace a taco shop,” Peterson says. “Having a fine dining experience is nothing that the internet can replicate. Food has become a large part of the experience in downtowns across the country because it was isolated from the impact of the internet.”
Traffic is killing the retailers who remain
Some businesses, like Heindselman’s, Taylor Maid, and Modern Shoe on Center Street have been mainstays of downtown Provo for decades, witnessing lots of change. But when Tony Thomas, owner of Modern Shoe for the last 30 years, asked if this change means that the city favors restaurants over retail, he responded that he doesn’t think that’s the case.
“I have found that if I work with the city and ask them for things [they’re], for the most part, easy to work with. So I don’t know why [other business owners] would say that,” says Thomas.
Although there is no factual basis to the claim Provo city favors restaurants over retail, Schofield and Taylor did make note of the other real issues the city should address, such as parking enforcement and street closures that affect small businesses.
According to Schofield, the city doesn’t enforce parking along Center Street (where all parking spots have a two-hour limit), eliminating parking for paying customers. As for events, accompanying street closures also harm his business. “I think the city, to a big extent thinks, ‘oh, if we have [events], we’re going to increase business for downtown.’ No, it just does the opposite,” Schofield says.
He’s referring to the Rooftop Concert Series, which ran for 10 years. During the yearly series, Schofield said he tried keeping his store open but rather than interested customers, he only got requests to use the bathroom. “We didn’t have enough sales to pay for the lights that we left on,” he says.
Thomas added that events resulting in street closures hurt his business as well, and he imagines it’s worse for businesses closer to University Ave, like Heindselman’s and Taylor Maid. “This administration has done that more than others,” Thomas said. “We’ve seen more [street] closures and that does kill our business.”
The construction on 500 West has been particularly damaging says Thomas, because of the way it affects traffic on Center Street. He estimates he loses $400-$500 in sales per day because bumper-to-bumper traffic means people can’t park or back out. “[The city] hasn’t really done anything to my knowledge to help with the congestion because of the construction,” he said.
So while there isn’t a sinister plot to push retail out of downtown Provo, there are real problems that the city should address if they want to support the businesses calling the area home. “I’d like to see routine parking enforcement. I’d like to see them ask before they start closing the streets,” Schofield says when discussing the areas for improvement. “I’d like to have the city ask the few remaining retail businesses down here what [they] could do [to improve].”
And maybe then they could do something about the traffic.