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Moving On: What to do when your business’ location takes a turn for the worse

It was supposed to be her forever location—right at the entrance of a thriving downtown retail and entertainment mecca. Business had been booming for years, and Gateway Bridal & Prom CEO and Founder Nicole Thomas’ quarter-of-a-million-dollar SBA loan she’d used to build out the sumptuous space was nearly paid off. But then things started to change.

What was once an innocuous homeless population across the street from Gateway Bridal & Prom turned dark. Violence was erupting, drug deals going down in broad daylight. The day Thomas found herself handing out mace and rape whistles to her employees, she knew it was time to consider a move.

“It was really tough—it was something I didn’t want to do. I had a great location. I loved what The Gateway used to be. The last thing I wanted to do was build a new store,” she says.

Gateway Bridal PromFeeling conflicted

Thomas said she was torn—she loved the area and had long been a proponent of Salt Lake’s downtown growth. She lived downtown in the late ‘90s and established her bridal and prom business there in the early 2000s. She was excited when an ideal space on the south end of The Gateway opened up in 2008 and immediately snagged the spot.

“I didn’t mind being across the street from The Road Home Shelter,” says Thomas. “I’d even go over and volunteer. There were only a few hundred people—disabled veterans, moms and kids, mentally ill people who would stay there at night. But about three years ago, it became a drug-trafficking center. I thought, ‘Surely the city can see what’s happening—somebody’s going to do something about this, right?’”

The criminal element continued to escalate. People would wander into the store, ask to use the bathroom, and shoot up with heroin. An employee was threatened after witnessing a drug deal on her way in from parking. Thomas couldn’t cross the street to grab her favorite cup of coffee without being personally threatened. She knew she had to do something. So she got involved.

Getting proactive

Thomas joined the Pioneer Park Coalition, a blend of public, private and nonprofit organizations dedicated to making Pioneer Park family-friendly 24/7, and “to healing the Pioneer Park and Rio Grande communities.” She went to countless city and county meetings and lent her voice to the growing chorus for change.

“I was trying to hold out, to see what government’s plans were for the area. While the mid- and long-term plans were good, I was disappointed that there weren’t any plans to fix the immediate problem,” she says.

When change didn’t come fast enough—and with her lease at The Gateway coming to an end— she finally conceded that she’d need to make the move. Through the Coalition, she met Micah Peterson with Clearwater Homes. Micah let her know of a 10,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of the new Broadway Lofts, and it felt like a perfect fit. A few months, another loan and a new buildout later, Thomas celebrated the grand opening of Gateway Bridal & Prom at 360 W. Broadway.

Gateway-Bridal Panorama“For having to move, it’s been the best-case scenario,” says Thomas. “I feel like I joined a community. From Bruges to Tony Caputo’s—everyone’s been so welcoming. We all know each other’s faces; we know each other’s names. You go a block and a half west, and it feels like the ‘Walking Dead’; there’s this aura of oppression. But you walk down the street here, and it’s like smiling faces everywhere. We still have our issues and our problems, but I can’t believe what a difference a block-and-a-half makes.”

Thomas has a few recommendations for others who find themselves in a similar situation. “Pray for good luck,” she jokes. “Honestly, I count my blessings because if my lease hadn’t been up, I wouldn’t have had the flexibility I did.”

Speaking up

Beyond good timing, though, Thomas says to speak up, to share concerns and help develop solutions. If local leaders have a plan that works with your timeline, she says to hang in there. But if you’re like Thomas, and the problem is outpacing the solution, then consider a move. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I OK experiencing this for another two to three years?’ If not, then you should leave,” she says.

Thomas adds that getting proactive is critical, saying, “I wish I would have done something sooner. I sat there at first, thinking surely everyone sees what’s going on. I don’t know more than the city and police do; they’ll fix it. If I’m ever in that situation again, I won’t wait thinking that they’ll pick up on it. They didn’t know more than I did, because I was the one sitting across the street from it all every day. You have to take matters into your own hands, because nobody’s going to care about things more than you.”

As she looks back over the past several months of upheaval and change, Thomas says, “The new store is beautiful; the staff is amazing. At the end of the day, I couldn’t be happier—but that’s still tempered with wishing I didn’t have to move in the first place.”

Thomas isn’t the first business owner to face this kind of dilemma, and she won’t be the last. For those who face a deteriorating locale, remember there’s hope. Get as informed and as involved as possible to promote change, and explore your options if things don’t turn around.