In the past year James Street has seen a renewed interest by smaller retail businesses. Retail in the area has, however, gone through cycles of prosperity before, only returning to end in vacancies. As a growing community, does Bellingham now have the population to supply a retail district on James Street?
An important force in all market trends — lower property prices — are drawing new businesses to James Street. When searching for a property to buy, Brian Martin, owner of Serendipity Studios with his wife, Becky, was looking for a place with old-time character, but also a good value. Although the couple had to renovate the building, Martin said the tradeoff between buying on James Street versus other sections of Bellingham saved him an estimated $100,000, money he will put toward keeping lower overhead costs. He added that his property has already appreciated more than he expected.
Rent in the area is also a bargain, according to Maureen Trainor, owner of Train-Or-Tri, a sporting goods store focused on triathletes.
Trainor, who has been in business since last spring, also chose the area because of its drive-by traffic, visibility and easy access to Interstate 5. Although she considers her business a destination store, Trainor said the high volume of daily traffic down James Street and easy access to the area were important in choosing a business location.
Although street traffic was also important for Martin, he also wanted foot traffic, something he initially expected would be lower than in other Bellingham business districts. He said, however, he has been impressed by the number of walk-in customers. According to Martin, when other businesses in the area get busy, Serendipity Studios gets busy. Although a nice surprise, Martin still recognizes foot traffic is much higher in places such as Fairhaven, and to counter that he is working to make his shop a destination location.
Trainor agreed. “Part of my incentive for moving into the area was that it was rediscovering itself in terms of the small-business feel,” she said.
According to Linda Hall, owner of Pat’s Blue Ribbons and Trophies, the area has seen this trend before. Hall has been in business on James Street since the mid 1970s, and said new businesses in the area are finally starting to increase after having several vacancies following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a subsequent economic downturn.
In the past, she said, the area hasn’t always been kind to businesses. “We’ve always had businesses here, it just seems they don’t stay very long,” she said. Hall said her business works well in the area, because it’s service based.
Despite past trends, Hall believes the upswing in businesses in the area is due to Bellingham’s rapidly growing population, which can now support more businesses.
“I hope things keep going the way they’re going, it will be good for all the businesses in the area,” she said.