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Upswing for Downtown Economy

By Ed Moosbrugger

September 9 -- An improved economy, the return of tourists and the opening of new stores have combined to boost Downtown retail activity this year.

In fact, the most recent tax figures show a healthy jump in taxable sales on the Third Street Promenade – from $47, 90,100 in the first quarter of 2003 to $58,465,100 during the same period this year, or an increase of 23.9 percent.

Tax figures for other parts of the Bayside District showed a similar jump in taxable sales, from $18,199,500 in the first quarter of 2003 to $22,364,300 this year, or a 22.9 percent hike. Santa Monica Place, which has seen a steady drop in business, posted a modest increase in sales.

While economists warn that winter’s unpredictable weather and hesitant business owners make the first quarter an unreliable barometer, local observers are optimistic business will continue on the upswing.

“The underlying indicators are all going to look strong over the next few months,” said Robert O. York, a consultant to the Bayside District Corporation.

New stores are one reason. “We’re looking really solid on Third Street (Promenade),” York said. “It’s close to fully leased and probably will be 100 percent by the end of summer.”

And, he said, the spillover of new businesses onto streets around the Promenade has continued.

While new stores are giving Downtown a boost, existing retailers also report an upturn in business.

“It has picked up because tourists are back,” said Naren Patel, owner of Shiva Imports on the Promenade. He reported increased sales and pedestrian traffic on the Promenade.

“They’re still out on the Promenade at 11 p.m.,” he noted.

The year started out a little slower than usual, but business began to pick up at the end of April, partly because of tourists, said Sameer Jooma, owner of the Giorgio Vasari men’s clothing store on the Promenade.

At Readers Fine Jewelers on Wilshire Boulevard business is better, said owner Eddie Guerboian. “The economy is up,” he noted.

Readers is benefiting from more engagements and weddings. “There is more love in the air,” the veteran jeweler said. But while business has increased it hasn’t been easy, he noted.

Carlson’s Appliance Center on Fifth Street had its best July sales ever this year, aided by increased advertising, said Mike Nichols, general manager.

“This year is way ahead of last year, but last year was down through June,” Nichols reported. Business is up over 2002.

Carlson’s posted strong sales increases through July, even though cool weather kept air conditioner sales down.

The return of tourists cited by retailers is reflected somewhat in sales tax revenues and occupancy numbers for the row of hotels along Ocean Avenue.

Hotels posted a 21.8 percent hike in taxable sales in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period in 2003.

In the first six months of 2004, Santa Monica’s hotel occupancy rate was up 5.5 percent from a year earlier to 79.2 percent, according to figures from PKF Consulting.

Patel reported more tourists from the East Coast, particularly Florida and New York, and from Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Both Patel and Jooma said visitors from England are a big market for them, and Jooma noted that some of the Japanese tourists are coming back.

Shiva Imports also has benefited from some of its local customers bringing visitors into the store, Patel said.

Jooma reported that a shift in merchandise toward more upscale and trendy offerings has aided business, drawing customers from such areas as Malibu and Pacific Palisades.

He also likes the fact that more restaurants are being added on the Promenade because people like to come Downtown to dine and shop.

York reported a broadening in the selection of restaurants and food outlets Downtown.

Among the new arrivals already open or coming soon are Le Pain Quotidien and Community Table, Leonidas Chocolate Cafe, Cafe Crepe, Angelato Cafe, Kai, Barney’s Beanery, Panera Bread and Akwa.

New stores are also giving a boost to Downtown sales. A lot of retail spaces that had been vacant or under construction are now coming on line, York noted. “Clothing is still big,” he said.

Among the new retailers coming Downtown or opening recently are Circuit City, Quicksilver Boardriders Club, Skinny Minnie, Wasteland, Zara, Papyrus and L’Occitane.

But while things are on the upswing Downtown, York cautioned against complacency.

Indeed, there are still issues to be addressed, including parking, modernized movie theaters and the future direction of Santa Monica Place.

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