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Economy could crunch Carlisle’s downtown revival

Some businesspeople in Carlisle
said the slowing economy could delay efforts to recruit new businesses, as
everyone pinches pennies.

Some businesspeople in Carlisle
said the slowing economy could delay efforts to recruit new businesses, as
everyone pinches pennies.

Recruiting qualified businesses to relocate or start a
second location is not easy, said Karen Barone, manager for the Downtown
Carlisle Association’s (DCA) Main
Street program. Securing that commitment could
take months from the time of initial contact, she said. Finalizing a deal could
take longer.

The job of recruiting businesses for Carlisle’s
downtown rests with Vanessa Fiorentino, DCA’s retail coordinator.

Some businesses have seen overhead go through the roof,
Fiorentino said. In addition, customers paying high gas prices are cutting
nights out on the town, she said.

“Most people are not thinking start or expand,” she said.
“They’re thinking about cutting costs, tightening the belt.”

Fiorentino has spoken with more than 200 businesses since
she started in August. At least 22 companies have visited the borough to scout
it, she said.

“It’s a long process,” Barone said. “It could take years for
recruiting to pay dividends.”

That could be more true than one would expect if the economy
doesn’t improve, said Steve Berg, owner of the Fanzone Sports, a sports-apparel
and collectibles store on North
Hanover Street.

“Given the economy right now, I’m sure it doesn’t make
Vanessa’s job easier,” Berg said.

Nationwide, March retail sales dipped 0.9 percent versus the
same period a year ago and decreased 0.3 percent since February, according to
the National Retail Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association. It
released those numbers April 14.

Retailers that balance their bricks-and-mortar store with a
Web presence have an advantage in tough times, Berg said.

Fanzone, one of Carlisle’s
newer storefronts, is actually an offshoot of Berg’s other businesses. He operates
two Web sites: www.patriotsurplus.com and www.fanzonesports.com. Berg sells
military surplus and sports items on the Internet.

The retail federation April 22 released an outlook report
for Mother’s Day sales. The report said mom could get fewer gifts this year due
to the economy’s higher prices for energy, gasoline and food. However, mom
might rack up the gifts better than expected. The U.S. Department of the
Treasury began direct depositing stimulus-package checks this week. It made the
announcement April 25.

Even if retail sales pick up, other issues are stalling a
full revival of Carlisle’s downtown, said Doug
Heineman, a Carlisle Borough councilman.

Some property owners are trying to rent space at $8-$9 per
square foot, Heineman said. But the property may only be worth $3-$4 per square
foot.

Heineman owns B-H Agency Real Estate at 63 N. Hanover St.

“At one time, I owned four properties, and I never had a
problem renting them,” he said.

Twenty vacant properties and storefronts are listed on the DCA
Web site.

Some of those locations could be success stories in the
making, owned by landlords who want to fix the buildings and lease the space to
residents and businesses.

Berg was a success story. He bought the building at 15 N. Hanover St.
in June, renovated it and now uses the front for one business and the back
storage area for another. The second floor is a two-bedroom apartment.

“It was a lot of work, but it worked out in the end,” Berg
said.

Barone and Fiorentino are looking for more owner/operators
downtown. While the economy is an issue for some people, Barone said most of
the region is insulated from the large economic swings that can hurt other
states and regions.

DCA had more calls in the first quarter of 2008 than it had
in the last quarter of 2007, she said. People want to know about starting
businesses in Carlisle, or locating existing
businesses there.

The situation already looks better, Barone said.

However, small-business owners who might want to expand run
into at least two problems: capital financing and staffing, Fiorentino said.

“Most people say they can’t imagine managing two stores,”
she said, “and they think it would be difficult to find the employees for a
second store.”

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