Archive for April 2009
Here’s my latest story in the Spokesman.
St. Paul Human Rights director search took surprise twist
by Anna Pratt
Originally posted 4/22/2009
None of the finalists presented to the community made the final cut
Recently, the City of St. Paul hired attorney Luz Maria Frias to take the helm of its newly merged Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO), a move that has garnered plenty of support but has also raised questions about the fairness of the selection process.
HREEO is supposed to increase opportunities for minorities, women, and people with disabilities in St. Paul. Its main goal is to “improve internal communication and coordination of contract related activities and to create a single point of accountability,” according to the original job listing.
Recently, Frias served as the City’s external affairs director, helping to secure over $27 million in supplemental funding for City initiatives, according to City information. Before coming to the City, she was a hearing examiner for the Shakopee Mdewkanton Sioux Community, chief legal officer for Centro Legal, and family court magistrate for the Second and Fourth Judicial Districts.
Frias is well respected for her advocacy efforts over the past 20 years, especially among Latinos, according to Francisco Gonzalez, an attorney and civil rights activist. “Anyone who has worked with the Latino community over the last 10 years knows her,” he said.
But critics question whether she’ll be beholden to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, though her proponents deny that. Frias twice turned down an interview with MSR, saying via email that she wants to hold off until she is more settled in her job.
Additionally, some people question whether the City adhered to the law when it hired Frias after two top candidates turned down job offers and the third finalist, Edward McDonald, was passed over. At that point, the mayor asked the selection committee for more names. It’s worth pointing out here that only half of the committee members made it to a meeting in which several more finalists were produced.
It’s unclear at this point why the mayor didn’t offer the job to McDonald, a former high-ranking City official who brought a whistleblower lawsuit against the City after his 2003 firing, which ended with a settlement. Nobody in the mayor’s office could be reached by press time, while McDonald declined to comment.
Clifton Boyd, an owner of B and L Supply who has been active on minority inclusion efforts, raised some doubts about the process. “If Ed McDonald wasn’t going to be taken seriously, then why was he in the top three?” Further, “It looks like there was no intention of considering him. He shouldn’t have been in the top three if that is the case. Since the person chosen was someone from [the mayor’s] staff, it looks as if he hand-picked her.”
City Council Member Melvin Carter III, who led the selection committee, said he couldn’t speak to why McDonald didn’t get the job, but he argued that the process didn’t sidestep any of the protocols that were outlined in the beginning. “One of the finalists would be appointed from the pool of finalists, and that is the case,” he explained. “Two of the three finalists ended up withdrawing. Because our charge was to find three to five finalists, we continued to identify finalists. Luz was one of those finalists who was forwarded to the mayor,” Carter said.
Additionally, he said Frias is highly qualified: “She’s an independent thinker and very capable of promoting justice regardless of the political framework. She’s impeccably qualified, which I think people will see more over time.”
More on the selection process
An intra-city webpage has a barebones description of the process for selecting a director, who serves a three-year term, stating that candidates “will be vetted through a community selection process similar to that for the City’s police and fire chiefs.”
Chapter 12 of the City code, which deals with the selection process for police and fire chiefs, spells out what happens after the mayor receives recommendations from a selection committee. It states that, “the mayor shall appoint one of said certified names, subject to the approval of city council. If the council does not approve the appointment, the mayor shall in turn appoint each of the remaining candidates, each subject to council approval. If the council approves none of the candidates, the candidate who has received the highest grading by the committee shall be appointed without further action by the mayor or council.’
However, according to Human Resources Director Angie Nalezny, the City used Chapter 11 for the human rights director selection process, which established HREEO, but doesn’t go into detail about that. Those sorts of things are “up to the committee,” which determines the level of scrutiny that will be applied to the candidates, she said.
Likewise, expectations for the candidates weren’t laid out up front but were explained as the process progressed, she said. If finalists are rejected, the committee can send more names, or the process may even start over from scratch, she said. “[The committee] chose to send [the mayor] three additional names,” she said via email.
City Council President Kathy Lantry said that the process was fair. “The committee has no authority. What would the mayor do? If he wasn’t going to be able to appoint his own director, I don’t know why he’d be given that authority.”
Shrinking budget had chilling effect
A shrinking HREEO budget complicated matters. One of the first round of finalists who rejected a job offer, Lynn Littlejohn, did not return MSR’s phone calls. Hope Jensen, another finalist, released to the MSR a Dec. 29, 2008, letter to the City wherein she states, “The verbal job offer I received did not match the position I applied for and discussed with you, I need clarity about how the loss of the three promised deputy positions will affect the expectations for this position. Without at least some of the tools [staff] the Hall Audit identified as necessary for success, true change and full compliance with Federal, State and local law may not be possible.”
Jensen said her concerns were flippantly dismissed: “Suddenly the need to complete the hire within 2.5 days was all-important, due to pending vacation plans.” Describing the position as highly political, she added, “My serious concern is that the new department will be created in name only.”
Asked repeatedly about her approach to the job, “Each time my answer was that the first and most important task would be to hire an effective management team,” Jensen said. “In fact, during my interview with you [the mayor], you asked about the characteristics I would look for when hiring in order to complement my leadership style.”
Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the St. Paul NAACP, described the process as fair and transparent, incorporating community feedback. “It doesn’t guarantee any result, but I felt good about the process,” he said. Additionally, “People need to understand that we did what we did based on concerns of contractors of color. People weren’t happy with the way things were going.”
Vic Rosenthal, who represents Jewish Community Action and who served on the selection committee, said, “I think we wound up with a strong candidate. The consensus was she’ll be good at the job,” he said, adding that “It’ll be a challenge to prove to the community” that her previous employment in the mayor’s office won’t detract from that.
Carol Rydell, a principal at Kaposia, which works to find job opportunities for people with disabilities, agreed that the selection process went well. Rydell, who also served on the committee, said that although it’s unfortunate that the budget situation influenced things, she’s pleased with the outcome.
“I think Luz Frias is a good candidate,” Rydell said. Even though others were stronger, “She was a top candidate.” Further, Rydell is relieved that “We finally have someone heading up this new department. We’ll have to see what happens.”
Additionally, James Thomas, the pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church, said, “I think the City made an effort to include everyone. The process worked the way it was projected. It followed the steps that were outlined. I’m not sure anyone expected it to turn out the way it did.”
But some observers are still confused about what happened. Donjia Johnson, a community member who had attended some of the public meetings, said that one of the original three finalists was presented as a sure thing. In this case, “It seems like politics as usual. Introducing people to the community, the assumption is that one of those three will be the director,” she said.
Anna Pratt welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a recent civil rights taskforce meeting, community members were kicked out even though it was supposed to be “open,” sources say, with Minneapolis civil rights director Michael Jordan calling security to escort them out.
The taskforce is being organized to study the possibility of transferring the complaints investigations work to the state human rights department as a way to cope with budget cuts. By the time Jordan had scheduled this week’s meeting, though, only a handful of committee members had been chosen, as opposed to the dozen or so it requires.
According to a source who was present at the meeting, Jordan told the several community members who showed up that it was an invitation-only thing, adding that it was a staff meeting. Additionally, during the presentations from the department’s division leaders, according to the source, Jordan argued about their budget figures, which didn’t match the numbers in his head.
City Council member Elizabeth Glidden said in a follow-up email on the happening that “due to the proactive work and outreach of my staff Jen White, we learned that Mr. Jordan had planned the first meeting … Because I recently learned that the taskforce was not fully set (with only five confirmed members to date) and I was concerned that I had not heard anything yet (nor had any other Councilmembers) about proposed process and format,” she drafted a letter to distribute at the meeting.
Further, she noted that some community members sought to attend the meeting, but Jordan barred their entry, calling security. Said Glidden, “I disagree with Mr. Jordan’s actions of yesterday, especially since this task force is intended to be a bridge to the community (even if an imperfect bridge) as well as providing valuable insight and comment to the Department and ultimately the Council and Mayor.”
Having met with Jordan and Council member Scott Benson, she said in the email, it has been agreed that all future meetings will be publicized immediately, with information posted on the city’s website. Related materials will also be available there, while the meetings will be open to the public. An evening meeting to get public feedback will happen in mid-May, her email states.
More information about what transpired at the not-so-public meeting can be found here.
Another art piece in this month’s Twin Cities Luxury and Fashion magazine (below).
Terrence Payne’s introspective works describe people’s clumsy actions and earnest beauty
By Anna Pratt
Local artist Terrence Payne presents “archetypes” of people that are coupled with telling objects and text throughout his beautiful oil-pastel drawings, silkscreen prints and textile designs.
His fanciful works are on display this month as part of the exhibit, “Regarding the Cartographer’s Germ,” along with artist Andy Ducett at Minneapolis’s Rosalux Gallery, which Payne helped found seven years ago to boost emerging and mid-career artists.
Payne’s striking pieces boast a strong narrative quality, synthesizing fleeting yet universal experiences. Forms are organic and refined, though not necessarily true to life. For example, his skillfully rendered people have bug eyes and over-sized heads (emphasizing the psychological), while their proportions are warped. Sometimes faces are obscured. Others may be repeated.
Figures tend to float against lightly hued backdrops alongside various artifacts, some of which are nonsensical. A confluence of delicate and bold lines suggests movement; people appear to be evolving before the viewer’s eyes. These elements come together to “bring into focus the clumsy actions and earnest beauty of humanity,” according to his online statement.
That metamorphosis is at work in the large-scale oil-pastel drawing, “This is the part of the movie where things start to get worse,” which is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, “The Birds.” A young woman who is poised alongside a sinewy red branch is “running away from her own history,” Payne explains.
Viewers don’t know the nature of that history, but can certainly empathize with the woman’s impulse.
Similarly, “It May Always Be a Choice Between One Other or the Utter” is a Renaissance-like triptych that pictures a proper-looking lady who is wearing a pearl necklace, black dress and a halo made of twigs. She looks ‘put-out,’ so it’s appropriate that “Other” and “Utter” are spelled out across the form of two udders on panels on both sides of her. Altogether, Payne says, “It’s a reference to self-righteousness.”
In many of his pieces, complementary colors and graceful lines and shapes throughout make the bizarre seem palatable. A pattern showing a devil silhouette that runs repeatedly through one textile design, for instance, is pretty, not condemning, while the fact that bucks and stags pop up at random seems logical (absurdly so).
That’s what stands out about Payne’s work — not just the whimsical forms and apt use of color — but the way he allows his imagination to stretch the viewer. Payne gets his material from those around him. “I’m interested in what’s going on in people’s lives … If I could live forever, it would only be to see how the story ends,” he says.
“Regarding the Cartographer’s Germ,” is on view through April at Minneapolis’ Rosalux Gallery. For more information on the artist, check out http://www.terrencepayne.com.
Here’s an arts story for this month’s issue of Twin Cities Luxury and Fashion magazine.
Coca-Cola in Mexico
A St. Paul Latino theater production examines the dynamics between the U.S. and Mexico
By Anna Pratt
Teatro del Pueblo explores the Americanization of Mexico in its latest production at St. Paul’s Gremlin Theater.
“The True History of Coca-Cola in Mexico” is centered around two filmmakers who head to Mexico to shoot a documentary about Coca-Cola’s misdeeds. But this isn’t a tale about Coca-Cola, per se. Teatro’s artistic director Alberto Justiniano says it’s a thoughtful and humorous critique of American capitalism. Justiniano helped found Teatro del Pueblo – the small nonprofit theater company on the city’s West Side, which is home to many Latinos.
The story, which was written by Patrick Scott and Aldo Velasco, has an interesting premise. The filmmakers believe that Coca-Cola has wrongly “taken over the lives of Mexicans and has undue influence across the globe,” Justiniano says. But in the process of filming in Mexico, the documentary makers fall into the same trap, using their status as Americans to get whatever they want and trampling over those for whom they are supposed to be advocating. For example, when the filmmakers don’t find evidence of Coca-Cola’s exploitation of Mexicans, they manipulate information to prove their thesis. As Justiniano explains, this is counterproductive to uncovering the truth, much less building trust between them the filmmakers and their subjects. (That’s analogous to situations in which the media sensationalizes particular events, he adds.)
The play is a thought-provoking commentary on capitalism. Utilizing comic relief, the two actors play a wide variety of characters spanning decades of oppression in Mexico, including everything from a conquistador to a Coca-Cola employee.
Through the dramatization, the audience is given a sense of what Mexicans have endured, underscoring the disparity between the haves and have-nots. “A small percentage of the population controls a large amount of the resources … there’s little hope for the people in the lower classes,” says Justiniano. He adds, “That’s not something we’re familiar with in the U.S. because we have a huge middle class.” The way he sees it, for the U.S. to gain maturity, “We need knowledge … to see other points of view. Then we can reassess our position on some things.”
Justiniano, who is also a playwright, screenwriter and director, says he was initially attracted to the script because it brought the opportunity to speak directly to the Latino community. But anyone can empathize with the two main characters. Creating such opportunities for understanding and cross-cultural dialogue falls in line with the Teatro’s mission to cultivate Latino artists and instill pride in the community, which it accomplishes through its regular theater season and educational programs.
Recently, the Teatro held its annual Political Theatre Festival jointly with Intermedia Arts, the University of Minnesota and the Resource Center of the Americas, with social justice as its driving theme. Independently, the Teatro produces several shows yearly. This season, it has featured work from the noteworthy local playwright Dominic Orlando, among others.
Since the theater company was founded nearly 20 years ago, following a racially-charged high school shooting, the local Latino population has tripled, perhaps making the company’s work even more relevant. Justiniano says he hopes that one day, its productions will be even more inclusive of the huge influx of immigrants from all around the world to Minnesota. “That’s my dream,” he says. “The True History of Coca-Cola in Mexico” runs from April 23-May 9 at the Gremlin Theater, 2400 University Avenue West, St. Paul. For more information about the show and times, visit http://www.teatrodelpueblo.org.
Here’s a story in The Bridge that I contributed to, along with several other reporters, about how local businesses are dealing with the recession.
Riding out the recession
Belle Reve — a new women’s clothing boutique that opened at 320 E. Hennepin Ave. last October — is ‘struggling’ but resolute in the current economy.
In addition to the following cover story surveying area businesses about the effects of the economy, read more articles about local businesses, including:
— how area business associations are battling economic pressures (web only)
— the closing of Global Village
— The Podium guitars celebrate 50 years of business.
— Elite Cleaners donates dry cleaning services to job seekers
Last October, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama acknowledged the vital role small businesses play in the economy, citing Small Business Administration (SBA) statistics when he said: “Small businesses employ half of the workers in the private sector in this country and account for the majority of the job growth.”
In South and Southeast Minneapolis, some of those businesses are hurting. People are cutting back on non-essentials and high-buck purchases, and the times have claimed some local casualties — like Global Village, a staple on the West Bank for nearly 40 year. (See story here.) Some surviving businesses have cut staff and, in turn, have seen more people looking for work.
The news is not all bad, however. While shops have closed their doors, others have opened anew, even since the economic collapse in September. And if essentials are still in, they seem to include a concert, that morning cup of coffee and socializing at moderately priced restaurants and bars.
In March, Bridge reporters talked with dozens of area businesses about if and how the economy is affecting them. The sample revealed specific effects all over the map but did show some trends.
East Lake Street
Among the hundreds of businesses in the Bridge area, there’s one in particular that is thriving. Max It Pawn hit a record high in February, taking in $80,000 in sales — about $10,000 more than average for a good month, according to Adilene Pliego, a longtime employee. “People are in need of money or loans,” said Pliego.
The economic situation has even driven some to pawn their wedding or engagement rings. “Just today, a woman came in and said her husband didn’t know her ring was here,” she said. On the flipside, Max It Pawn’s sales numbers show that more and more people are buying what others are pawning — trying to save money by buying used items, Pliego speculated.
Like the pawn shop, O’Reilly Auto Parts has seen more business lately. Store Manager Joe Mosser said he’s noticed a considerable upswing since November. “More people are working on their cars instead of trading them in for new ones,” he said.
The Longfellow Grill, now in its fourth year, is also gaining, according to General Manager David Fredrick. Sales in 2008 were significantly higher than in 2007 and have also increased this year, said Fredrick, who believes people are traveling less and are therefore exploring their neighborhoods more. Likewise, Leviticus Tattoo is just as busy as ever, according to its Manager Ben Karner.
In the spring of 2007, gift boutique Corazon opened its second shop on East Lake Street and, just last year, relocated its original Downtown store to 1026 Washington Ave. S. Now, co-owner Susan Zdon said the Lake Street store’s sales exceed those of the Downtown East location, which is struggling in part because it’s in an evolving community. But Zdon, experienced in retail, said business typically ebbs and flows.
“Small businesses can flex more easily. You have to really keep an eye on what’s happening everyday and make adjustments all the time,” she said, adding: “We’re really fortunate to have the support of the community.”
Lake Street Gifts and Crafts, which opened Feb. 27, is even newer to the scene. Ray LaVasseur, who manages the store at 2933 E. Lake St., said the shop is just starting to build a clientele. He’s not so worried about the economy’s effect on the shop. “We try to offer things that are affordable to everyone,” he said, adding that walk-up business is improving all the time.
Doug Jiracek, the manager at Rainbow Foods, said that sales are consistent, but he’s noticed customers going for more lower-end items — buying hamburgers and hot dogs instead of steaks, for instance, or baking rather than buying convenience items. They’re also making fewer trips to the store and buying more items at once.
Likewise, Mike Dooley, who owns the Craftsman Restaurant, said he’s seeing more patrons split entrees. In response to economic pressures, the restaurant has created more specials, like bottles for $18 on weekday evenings or a $19 fixed-course meal. Overall, “I think all retail is suffering,” he said. “You see it all around. Business is not what it can be or should be, or what it was a year ago.”
At Soderberg’s Florist, people are also buying smaller — picking up a $30 flower arrangement as opposed to a $50 bouquet, said General Manager Kym Erickson, who said sales are down a little but reported an influx in internet traffic.
Scott Cramer, owner of Northern Sun Merchandising and co-chair of the Longfellow Business Association, said the recession has hit him hard, too; sales are down 20–30 percent. Cramer and other Lake Street business owners have said the impact of the recent reconstruction of Lake Street is now compounded by the recession.
Manny Gonzalez, co-owner of Manny’s Tortas, cited that one-two punch of the as a reason for the closure of his sandwich shop in the Coliseum building, 2700 E. Lake St. (His two other Lake Street locations — at the Mercado Central on Bloomington and Midtown Exchange at Chicago — are still open.)
After the recession hit, “No one was going out to eat,” he said. Eventually, Manny’s was taken to court and evicted by the landlord. Gonzalez laid off 12 employees.
Now, the historic Coliseum building — which underwent a $5.1 million renovation earlier this decade with the help of more than $1 million from the city — is itself facing foreclosure. The Coliseum was to be sold through the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department on March 26, according to Ron Wood, a representative of American Bank, which holds the mortgage on the 92-year-old building.
Building owner Fred Lehmann downplayed the situation, calling it a “period of restructuring” that is largely misunderstood by the general public. Though he acknowledged the building does not have enough tenants, he has high hopes for the Coliseum, and he noted that some tenants, like Denny’s, have recently renewed their leases and remain busy.
Meanwhile, Manny’s is not the only Latino business facing hard times, according to state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, who is pushing for legislation to give the small business owners a break and planned to organize a community meeting of small business owners and city officials in early April.
Pat Clough, owner of Oaks Hardware for 38 years, said he’s hearing about the tough economy from customers and seeing its effects in late or partial payments of company accounts. He said he hasn’t seen a change in what people are buying — they’re just buying less of it — and landlords are making just the necessary repairs and holding off on extra remodeling. In response, Clough currently has less stock than normal for this time of year, but as of now isn’t planning to make other changes.
Bassel Banat, who owns Wally’s Corner Market, said food purchases have remained steady over the past year, but he’s seen a decrease in “miscellaneous,” nonessential purchases. Banat’s been working more himself to save money, he said, and he’s been looking for ways to cut down on rising wholesale costs, like purchasing in bulk and looking for deals at places like Sam’s Club.
Late last summer and fall, Larry Manning worried that he’d be seeing a drop-off in business at Manning’s Café, but it never materialized. “To our surprise,” said Manning, business has been quite good.” Their prices are moderate, he said, and the nearly 77-year-old restaurant has a lot of steady customers.
Across the street at Sporty’s Pub and Grill, owner Joe Radaich echoed Manning’s findings, saying business is actually up from the previous year, which may be partly due to recent renovations. The industry consensus seems to be that people still want to eat out, he said — they just want to spend less. He expects customers to continue being value-conscious, and he’s held off increasing some prices despite rising wholesale food costs.
Perhaps the most noticeable economic indicator for Radaich was the 130 responses he received for one server position he recently advertised on craigslist. Cevin Chladek, owner of Muddsucker’s Coffee, has also noticed more people stopping in and asking for work.
As some customers face unemployment — and along with it, the loss of health insurance — Tom Senguptu, owner of Schneider Drug, said he’s seeing more people trying to stretch their medications or not refilling prescriptions at all. He’s not concerned with how it’s affecting his business (which he said is more or less recession-proof) — he’s more interested in finding ways to help customers, like setting them up with cheaper generic drugs.
“It was kind of a rough winter” for the 4-year-old Cupcake café, said Assistant Manager Rebecca Brents, but business is starting to pick up now. Large catering orders helped them through the earlier winter months, but the café got pretty slow right before the holidays. In January they had to lay off almost a third of the staff, but as it gets busier, they expect to hire back some people, said Brents.
In contrast, sales have continued to increase each month at the 2-year-old Overflow Café, said owner Jeff Barnhart. “People need food, and people are addicted to coffee,” he said. While vendor prices have increased, he’s hesitant to raise prices for fear of losing business. Barnhart said he expects people will continue to patronize the café because “such low-margin items … are easily justified, even in a time like this.”
At General NanoSystems, which sells gaming systems, servers and customized computers and does repairs, owner Khalid Mahmood said he’s seeing more repairs and fewer new purchases, but he isn’t concerned about the effect the economy might have on his business. During the 2001 economic downturn, sales remained high, he said.
Dinkytown and Stadium Village
Sally’s Saloon & Eatery hasn’t had to raise prices or tweak the menu in these dire economic times. “We’ve just been blessed with a good location,” said Nick, a manager and bartender at Sally’s, a longtime haven for U of M students, Gophers fans and others. “Because of that, we haven’t seen a steady decline [in sales] like our friends [in the restaurant business] Downtown.”
Likewise, students are still shopping at The Book House, although Manager Adrian Doerr said business is “a little slower, like most retailers. Luckily, we haven’t had to lay anyone off.” While foot traffic has been on a noticeable decline, online sales are up. As with other Dinkytown businesses, Doerr said the book business is seasonal, and the 32-year-old shop is just now beginning to emerge from the annual holiday hangover.
Inkaholics Tattoo opened in March 2008 at 1319 SE Fourth St. While it is almost always tough for a new business, a declining economy only compounds the struggle, said Jenna Emmans, head receptionist. “We opened in this economy, so we don’t have a lot to judge by,” she said. “Even though tattoos are forever, people still view it as an excess.”
Like Inkaholics — where reputation is your best advertising, said Emmons — the Loring Pasta Bar relies largely on word-of-mouth, said Senior Manager Khanh Goodman. Goodman was worried when the economy began to nosedive in late 2008 and the news reported more people dining at home. He has had to cut back on staff hours, but that can happen in any economy, he said. Still, the Loring has maintained a pretty solid customer base, and catering and sister-business the Varsity Theater have helped supplement sales; revenue percentages have actually risen over previous years, said Goodman.
At the other end of the block of Southeast Fourth Street, business has slowed at the Hair Shaft, a small barbershop dating back 30 years. Still, one barber there (who asked not to be named) said he’s seen tight times before in his 37 years of experience. He suspects people have been buying clippers and cutting their own hair. “But then they botch it up and have to go to a barber,” he said, proving the economy hasn’t doused his sense of humor.
Seward and Cedar-Riverside
Caleb Majerus, a supervisor at Pizza Lucé, said he’s seen a shift in evening sales from dine-in to delivery, as more people are eating at home. However, people who do dine in tend to spend more money “because it’s a special occasion.” Daytime supervisor Lynette Foxen reported smaller lunch parties and slower happy hours, as well — and fewer staffers on at times, as a result.
Cindy Kangas, owner of Second Moon coffee shop, said she hasn’t really felt the effects of the down economy. “I think people still want to go out,” she said, “I’ve been lucky.” A coffee shop, she noted, is a low-cost option for food, drink and socializing. Kangas said she has also noticed an increase in professionals using the shop and its wireless internet as a de facto office.
Dining is not the only stepping-out option. While attendance is still strong for shows at The Cedar, Executive Director Robert Simonds said they’ve seen a modest drop in private donations this year, and the economy has had a major impact on most of their funders, resulting in a significant cut in grant support.
While the West Bank is losing an icon in Global Village, another business has opened right next door. Mohamoud Hussein moved his West Bank Dry Cleaning and Alterations from the Al Karama Mall in January. While the economy has led some people to do more laundry at home, Hussein said he’s still seeing business, like people bringing in winter coats and needing alterations.
“I think I’ll make it,” said Hussein. Down the street at Al Karama Mall, some of the upstairs stalls were empty in mid-March; whether it’s a sign of the times is uncertain. (A call to mall management was not returned.)
Wing Witthuhn, who owns Pacifier with her husband Jon, said she has definitely seen a downturn since September, although Christmas was still fairly strong, and she has seen an uptick since February. Online sales have been better than instore, she said.
Customers have shown concern, Witthuhn said. “I can’t tell you how many people ask us [how we’re doing],” she said. “I feel like people in Northeast, Seward, Downtown really care about their small businesses,” she continued. “People who are aware of that seem to be making an effort to shop locally.”
Just a few doors down, Aisha Ghanchi sat behind the counter at Belle Reve, the women’s clothing boutique she opened with her mother and sister last October. “The person that comes here spends money on their clothes,” said Ghanchi, who has experience as a fashion buyer in Beverly Hills, London and at Marshall Field’s. “I know how boutiques do in a good economy,” she said. “We’re struggling.”
Two other businesses on the block have closed in the past six months — kitchen supply and cooking class-specialists Let’s Cook last fall and the fine-dining Fugaise in mid-March.
“People have changed values, and I understand that,” she said, but she added that it is important to price her merchandise equal to its value, rather than try to compete with brands selling at slashed prices at large departments stores.
“People who shop at my store … are looking for something unique, they’re looking for a story about the line,” she said, emphasizing the related importance of “shopping and buying locally” — a message and campaign currently taken up by area business associations.
To finance the boutique, Ghanchi said she didn’t even attempt to get a bank loan last fall, but she was planning to apply for an SBA loan, just days after President Obama announced expanded SBA programs and economic relief for small businesses, calling them “one of the biggest drivers of employment that we have.”
last revised: April 1, 2009