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Laguna fights low business tide

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Shoppers browse along Forest Avenue the day after Christmas in downtown Laguna.
(Don Leach / Coastline Pilot)

Attracting Laguna Beach residents to downtown businesses is becoming more of a challenge with online shopping and big-box retailers in surrounding areas, several entrepreneurs said last week when asked about the city’s retail climate.

As the city moves ahead on revising its downtown specific plan, some business owners say an area that includes Forest and Ocean avenues and Broadway Street needs a creative jolt to keep shoppers in town, while not sacrificing the artsy, beachy vibe. The downtown specific plan is a key document that outlines development standards such as land use and design in the city’s commercial core.

Entrepreneurs said they saw fewer shoppers strolling city streets in December compared to previous years, a sign Laguna may not be immune from a retail trend sweeping the nation.

Kavita Reddy, who leads an economic development task force through the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, said consumers nowadays are looking beyond particular goods and products.

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“The biggest change is consumer demand,” said Reddy, who, along with her sister Vidya Reddy, owns Buy Hand in the Sleepy Hollow district just south of downtown Laguna. The store offers a bounty of handmade goods such as jewelry and children’s toys. “If you read the papers, people are going for the experiences and restaurants rather than buying stuff.”

Bloomberg News reported earlier this year that millennials, a group of people in their 20s to 30s, prefer eating out to cooking meals at home. The New York Times reported in August that spending at restaurants and bars throughout the U.S. increased more than 9% in the first seven months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014.

“It’s definitely getting tougher,” Gila Leibovitch, owner of four Laguna clothing stores, including the Vault, said about attracting local clientele. “Forest Avenue [pedestrian traffic] is not what it used to be. We’re not feeling the locals.”

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Luring Lagunans

To succeed, Leibovitch and Reddy said, business owners must come up with creative ways to attract shoppers. Leibovitch suggested allowing stores to remain open later and businesses holding sidewalk sales once a month to boost foot traffic.

But if a business owner wants to sell an additional product or service, he or she must receive city approval to alter the store’s conditional use permit — through a Planning Commission vote at a public hearing — and wait to see if anyone appeals the decision before going forward. Some entrepreneurs don’t want to hassle with the process.

Leibovitch said Laguna and its “current mix of stores” have benefited by the CUP process, but added that some policy tweaks could make it better.

Take parking, as an example.

“If I wanted to serve coffee, I could not do that because I can’t provide enough parking,” Reddy said.

Shirley’s Bagels encountered that scenario in 2014 when it wanted to move locations within a Broadway Street office complex.

Shirley’s ownership expected nothing would change with the amount of parking spaces it must offer customers, since they wanted to move into a space formerly occupied by Casey’s Cupcakes, zoned retail.

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City staff thought otherwise.

The city considered Shirley’s a food-service business and required Shirley’s to provide more parking spaces than the minimum for a retail use.

Shirley’s hired a consultant to prove the bagel shop would not compete with other businesses in the complex in offering parking to customers since Shirley’s operating hours differed from those of other merchants.

Shirley’s opened its new store last June.

Reddy said she would like to see changes in the code that allow business owners to experiment, particularly when it comes to food.

“We know we have to offer an experience, like food, because that is what people like,” Reddy said.

Parking will be the main focus of a joint City Council and Planning Commission downtown planning meeting scheduled Jan. 27.

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‘Think Laguna First’

In the meantime, chamber officials are being proactive in persuading residents to make more of their purchases in town. They created a marketing campaign titled “Think Laguna First” and got local entrepreneurs to participate in Small Business Saturday in November.

Shopping in Laguna “keeps sales tax dollars in town, helping pay for police and fire protection, street repairs, and parks, and allows local merchants to hire within the community,” according to the chamber’s website.

The chamber will hold an all-day event similar to Small Business Saturday this spring throughout Laguna focused on residents, chamber Executive Director Laura Henkels said

The details are still being worked out, but all businesses will be encouraged to participate, whether or not they are a member of the organization. Entertainment could include bands playing on street corners and restaurants offering bite-sized food samples, Henkels said.

In 2015, the council approved $40,000 for a consultant to design and install directional signs that will guide pedestrians to various shopping areas. Reddy said the money will be available in July but is working with the city on getting some temporary signs placed before the busy summer season.

The Jan. 27 parking meeting, open to the public, will be from 6 to 9 p.m. at City Hall, 505 Forest Ave.


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