The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

Our lost retail dollars

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - cfeather@starbeacon.com

ASHTABULA – Google these words: “Ashtabula County retail per capita.”

Chances are the lead reference will be the 2002 U.S. Census Bureau State and County QuickFacts. Scroll down the long list of data, and you’ll come to the figure that sums up the retail expenditures made by each Ashtabula County resident in 2002: $8,383.

That’s a figure of great interest to retailers researching new locations.

“It has a huge a impact on it,” says Jim Timonere, Ashtabula Area Chamber of Commerce president. “The reports you receive are the same reports others look at when they are considering locating here.”

While $8,383 is not small change, it pales in comparison to the 2002 Ohio figure: $10,497. That’s roughly $2,000 per person that was not spent here on things like flat-screen televisions, new cars, iPods and designer jeans, but was spent elsewhere in Ohio.

Research what is spent in neighboring counties like Lake County and the discrepancy is even greater: More than $5,000 per person in that county was spent on retail than in Ashtabula County.

Timonere knows where a chunk of that money being spent in neighboring counties is coming from, and he’s unhappy about it. A 2004 Retail Market Analysis conducted by The Ohio State University revealed that Ashtabula consumers spent $63 million on goods purchased outside the county. Whether it’s from Internet sales or a 45-minute trip to the Millcreek Mall, this exodus of retail dollars is reshaping the local retailing landscape like a bulldozer leveling a once prosperous community.

“That is huge,” Timonere says of the retail leakage. “We got to figure out how to stop people from going to Mentor and Erie to shop.”

The study showed for every person in Ashtabula, there was $1,737 in retail leakage to other markets. For Geneva, the figure was $2,309.

The cities of Warren, Mentor, Erie, Pa., all showed per capita surpluses, indicating they were destinations for shoppers.

One way of reconciling the $63-million leakage and the $8,383 per capita spending figure is by viewing Ashtabula County as one divided between those with the resources to gas up the car and travel to urban centers for both the necessities and niceties of life, and those who live on a paper-thin margin easily crumpled by a trip to the doctor and pharmacy, a blown engine in a 20-year-old pickup or a two-week layoff from the plastics plant.

“There is such a big divide between the haves and have-nots, when the data comes out, it is skewed the other way,” says Timonere.

For many of these shoppers, however, the reason is simple: diversity of retail options. Ashtabula County doesn’t have a Best Buy, Circuit City or Sam’s Club. It lacks many of the specialty boutiques offered in both malls and thriving downtown districts. For example, the retail leakage figure for Jefferson was $4,238 per resident, indicative of a small number of shopping options in the village.

For those who choose to shop locally, there’s no shortage of businesses that cater to the working poor. Virtually every community has a Dollar General or Family Dollar (yes, even Rock Creek). Pizza shops, which offer a relatively cheap and convenient way to feed a family, abound, as do auto parts stores and rent-to-own shops.

Ashtabula City Manager Anthony Cantagallo says a family friend visited the area shortly after Cantagallo was elected. After Cantagallo finished showing him the town, the visitor made an observation about the future of the city based on the storefronts he had seen.

“He said, ‘You know you are in trouble as a city when you have three stores with the word “dollar” in them,’” says Cantagallo.

Ashtabula County has suffered the recent departure of several major retailers, including Dillard’s at the Ashtabula Mall, Rex appliances and the Tops grocery store. Ironically, but perhaps indicative of the economy, the Dollar Tree store now anchors what was once the Tops plaza, and Aaron’s, a rent-to-own business, has taken up space in the former Rex building. Downtown Ashtabula buildings that once housed a department store and specialty shops have in our new economic paradigm, been transformed into a thrift shop, a rent-to-own store, a Head Start complex and a church.

Cantagallo counted 48 vacant commercial/ retail buildings along Main Avenue, from West 58th Street to the viaduct, two years ago. He says six have been filled since then, and he can’t take credit for the vision and fortitude of those who set up shop along the strip.

“We as a city didn’t do a whole hell of a lot,” he admits. “The landlords who had buildings closed for a decade were ecstatic.”

Things aren’t much better in Saybrook Township, where Blockbuster Video is shuttering its store, joining Legends Pizza and the Great Wall Chinese restaurant as former businesses.

On the east side of the river, the burst of retail development that came following construction of the Ashtabula Mall in the 1990s has flattened, with empty mall storefronts and the huge former DIY building sitting vacant. If lines of traffic and cars in parking lots are any indicators, Wal-Mart owns the Ashtabula Township retail market.

Meghann Gault, Ashtabula Mall senior marketing director, says the mall’s occupancy rate is 80 percent, which is the same as the national average, according to a trade group. Gault says the recent departure of Dillard’s was a loss, but it also opens the opportunity to bring in a new tenant to that high-profile space. Gault says the mall’s new owner and management company are working to attract national, regional and specialty retailers. She says one of the advantages the Ashtabula location has is its strong tourism draw.

Jerome Brockway, a Growth Partnership trustee and superintendent of the Ashtabula County Joint Vocational School, says Dillard’s was never a good fit for Ashtabula County and was in the mall only as a concession to its former owner. Once Cabot purchased the mall, Dillard’s was free to exit and concentrate on other markets more suitable to the high-end retailer.

The mall’s new owner, which took over in August 2007, is working on a redevelopment plan for the property. Gault says shoppers can provide input as to what shops they’d like to see at the mall by visiting the Web site (ashtabulamall.com) and sending comments via e-mail.