There are signs popping up all around downtown Lawrenceville, but not the kind of signs you want to see. These say “Space Available” and “Space for Lease.” Historic downtown is disappearing. “People are definitely talking about it and showing concern,” said Lynn Hinds of Magnolia’s Gifts and Antiques. “They want to know what’s going on, why everything is closing down. I don’t have an answer for them.” Is it a sign of city decline? It depends on who you ask, but most of the business owners on the town square can agree on the one major factor that's missing-you. Yes, you. You are not shopping on the square.
Aristeacrats is one of the stores that recently left the square.. Jessica Burns closed up shop in Honest Alley Exchange at the end of June after two-and-a-half years and moving sales online. She is the first to tell you that it was her choice. “Ultimately it was my decision,” Burns said. “My business plan was that hopefully by now I would have been able to afford employees and grow... it didn’t happen.” Burns opened the tea shop with high hopes in 2010 on the top floor of Honest Alley Exchange. Back then, she had more neighbors. Now, nearly that entire top row is empty. “I thought I had come in the middle of the progression (downtown), but it was kind of more like the beginning,” said Burns. In order to get to her store, the last stop on the top row, customers would have to walk past empty storefronts. Those that didn’t know Aristeacrats existed didn’t make it that far. “When people are walking and they see empty storefronts, they’re not going to keep walking. They're going to turn around and leave because they think nothing else is there,” said Burns.
The Little Shop Of Arts And Antiques on Crogan Street shut down March 31st. Owner Barbara Barth decided to close to take care of family. Her mother recently lost her job. "I could not keep up shop expenses and those of her house in Florida," said Barth. "I didn't want her to worry." Barth started a Gwinnett County Writers Guild and book club. They still meet at Niko's Wine Corner.
The empty storefronts may not be pretty, but not all think it's been bad for business. “It’s certainly not attractive,” said Katie Heaberlin of Sweets on the Square. She hasn't noticed a slowdown of customers, but thinks it may scare potential business owners away. “They might think it’s not a good place to start a business if they see all kinds of empty spaces.” Some blame the economy for the slow progression downtown. Burns says that's not it. “The economy is a really easy thing to blame, but there are four Wal-Marts within five minutes of here and the mall is packed all the time,” Burns said. “People are spending. I think it’s more of a (lack of) small town community support.”
That lack of support is being blamed for the demise of The Singin' Bean karaoke and coffee shop. The music stopped at the end February after nine years. “I closed because I couldn’t make a profit on the square,” said owner, Cindy Pitts Gilbert. “There’s just not enough sidewalk traffic and they keep opening restaurants with alcohol and we can’t compete.” The ‘Bean built a reputation as a family-friendly hangout spot. There was plenty of hanging out, just not enough buying. “My customers at night were strictly people who wanted to come and sing karaoke…people who didn’t want to drink and wanted to bring their families.” said Gilbert. The bulk of the business did not come from Lawrenceville customers. While she appreciated that parents loved the safe atmosphere for their children, she wasn't getting enough returns. “I would have to walk up to a table on more than one occasion and say ‘Guys, I need the table for someone who’s willing to pay’. It was a shame that I would have to do that. I would have people get mad at me about it and I lost customers over it,” said Gilbert.
She believes Lawrenceville city leaders need to play a bigger role in developing downtown. "The merchants truly feel that the city does not have their back," said Gilbert. "It's every man for themselves on the square. Everyone is so worried about how to make a dollar that they're not even supporting each other. There's no sense of community." Burns has a similar feeling. "Even in the financially poorest communities, there's always some leader that brings the community together. In the richest communities, you have families involved in keeping that. We're kind of in the middle," Burns said. "We don't have a presence of anything down here. Our identity hasn't found its place."
Nakia Williams is doing all she can to be inviting to the community. She opened SoJe Emporium in November and is working to bring more business to Honest Alley Exchange. The store features consignment clothing, home goods and a beauty/barber shop. "I do think that we need a little bit more going on here," said Williams. "If business owners would come together and think of what we can do to keep our shoppers local, that would be great." Because Honest Alley Exchange is sort of tucked in a corner, businesses there don't often benefit from the foot traffic of festivals held on the square. Williams is trying to bring the customers in by hosting karaoke on Friday nights. Soon, she hopes to have a cafe inside her store so customers don't have to leave the Exchange to find food.
All agree Lawrenceville has great potential; it just needs a 'kick in the pants'. "I think Lawrenceville needs to take bigger risks. If we don't, we're giving up on the people that make our community," Burns said. "We have to take those risks and believe that in turn they will support us." Gilbert feels the ideas are there, they just aren't being implemented. "Every time Lawrenceville tries to make a change among the people, the city fights it," she said. "I've met with the mayor, given her ideas. I think the city of Lawrenceville wants to succeed, I just don't believe they have a true understanding of what it would take to make that happen."
Mayor Judy Jordan Johnson would not address specific concerns, but said there are plans in the works. "We're just looking at all possibilities to make our downtown better," she said. Recently, the city appointed Lisa Sherman as Director of Economic Development. Sherman could not be reached for comment. Her responsibilities include marketing Lawrenceville as a strong and viable location for doing business. In May, officials broke ground on the Lawrenceville Lawn. It will be located between Jackson and South Clayton Streets, within two blocks of the historic courthouse square. The four million dollar project will add an amphitheater and playground. It's expected to be completed sometime next year. "For someone who's struggling to make it, it's tough to look that far out," said Burns. Gilbert is not so sure it will help. "How far away down the street is that park? There's no reason come shopping in downtown Lawrenceville. There’s nothing to bring you here to stay." she said. "There needs to be more shopping. You need more sidewalk traffic. That's what's hugely missing."
The bottom line is that without your support, they can't survive. "I think the community needs to understand that on a personal basis we’ve all opened our store for them, to serve them," said Burns. "They have to understand that in return they have to come and support their town, because it's a beautiful town." Williams is optimistic, "I think it’s just the beginning. If we can stick through this, we can make it through the rest," she said. "I love Lawrenceville and I would love it to succeed. Maybe somebody can benefit from my lack of ability to make it work," said Gilbert. She's now writing a book and putting her training and management skills into creating a self-help seminar. "Maybe something will change, maybe something will spark," Gilbert said.”We know what’s not working."
What do you think the City of Lawrenceville and Lawrenceville residents should do to help businesses boom? Tell us in the comment section below.