ST. ALBANS CITY — Downtown businesses differed in their accounts of the 2019 holiday season.
Donna Howard, who owns the North Main Street bookstore the Eloquent Page, said she hasn’t “crunched the numbers yet” — but she also said business this holiday season was definitely slower than it was last year.
And Howard, who also serves on the city’s downtown board, said her fellow downtown merchants have shared the same experience, a noticeably slower holiday season.
But businesses on South Main Street reported the opposite. The Artist in Residence Gallery had an unusually profitable month, highlighted by the sale of $500 and $1,000 local art pieces.
And Crystal Lafferty, a longtime employee of Mimmo’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, said December was unusual there as well.
Lafferty said business was “really, really good.”
She said Mimmo’s expects solid business on New Year’s Eve, for example, and sure enough, Mimmo’s did a good business then.
But Lafferty said Mimmo’s also saw heavy traffic on days that don’t usually draw a big crowd, like Christmas Eve.
The St. Albans Cooperative Creamery’s Tractor Parade is another example. Lafferty said it was a record night at Mimmo’s.
So South and North Main merchants shared opposite experiences with the Messenger. But it’s probably not an issue of geography.
Howard surmised online retailers may be to blame.
Those online retailers might offer similar products to those a shopper could find downtown — and save shoppers a trip out of their homes.
Howard said local U.S. Postal Service deliverers regularly reported being “absolutely inundated” with packages from online purchases.
It’s no surprise, then, that downtown businesses thrived in the time around events that drew people out of their homes — events like the tractor parade, or the week-long Festival of Trees.
Lisamarie Charlesworth manages the Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce. She said her phone “rang off the hook” during the Festival of Trees.
Charlesworth said callers looked for specifics about the festival, such as event locations or ticket availability. She said the Running of the Bells, in particular, seemed to draw calls.
But Charlesworth told the Messenger callers also asked about the store hours of downtown businesses, places to park downtown and directions to specific locations — which Charlesworth said “led me to believe that the festival attracted a large out-of-town crowd this year.”
And she said those who attended downtown events told her they weren’t disappointed.
“I have heard feedback that the gala was amazing,” the city hall celebration culminating the Festival of Trees, “and other general commentary on how much there is to do in St. Albans.”
She said visitors also commented on lights downtown, particularly Taylor Park “and how gorgeous it all looks.”
“I tell everyone that there are two things we take very seriously here in downtown St. Albans,” Charlesworth said. “Our holiday lights, and any opportunity to host fireworks.”
Charlesworth works part-time in two downtown retail establishments. She said both were “uber busy,” with both local and out-of-town traffic.
Even the chamber itself, near the corner of North Main and Lake, saw a spike in walk-ins.
“I feel like I’ve handed out a lot of downtown guides to people,” Charlesworth said, emphasizing the “lot.”
“I’ve also had visitors come to the office who are seeking information for their out-of-town holiday guests.”
“My general impression is this is the busiest December I’ve seen downtown in a long time,” Charlesworth said. “Typically the chamber is quiet at this time of year. Not so this year.”
City officials did their part to bolster downtown business. Yes, city staff put up the aforementioned holiday decorations, but the city also instituted a new license plate reader to chase off parking space hogs and ideally clear spaces for Main Street shoppers.
On top of that, the city council approved a trial run of free parking in the city’s Lake Street parking garage, two free hours, another effort to free up regularly occupied parking spaces on Main Street but also a chance for visitors to park for hours within easy walking distance of the central downtown.