Originally created 01/30/05

Local bar owners feeling tapped out



Opening a bar downtown has never been easy, but some proprietors say starting a bar and keeping it running is getting tougher as the number of establishments have grown in recent years.

"I think there's a saturation point for things; there's only so many clubs and restaurants that can be supported," said David Bryan, who, with his business partners, was forced to close the Blind Pig Speakeasy last month because of low attendance.

Ten years ago, the number of trendy bars and restaurants downtown could be counted on one hand.

Today there are more than four dozen, leading some business owners to question whether the market has reached its limit.

"There are more bars than can be sustained; there's a limited number of customers right now," said Mike Yonesaki, an owner of the Metro A Coffeehouse, which opened in 2000. "Right now we have a finite pie and you're in competition with each other and more right now because things are slowed down."

The recent closing of establishments such as the Blind Pig Speakeasy and the Orange Moon Cafe might be an early indicator of an ebbing downtown entertainment industry. Those that remain will have to contend with a patron population that continues to migrate to booming Columbia County and a public that still sees downtown as an unsafe place.

Mr. Yonesaki, whose Metro A Coffeehouse is one of the larger downtown bars, acknowledged that business has declined in recent months.

"Our numbers in 2004 were 15 to 20 percent off of what they were in 2003; that's a big drop," he said.

There simply are too many bars and not enough patrons, he said.

In 2004 an array of new bars, including Room 9, The Mission, Ballroom Billiards and Hale Tiki, opened.

Focus on family

Although there might be a glut of bars downtown, Mr. Yonesaki attributes some of the decline in business to a lingering negative perception of the area.

In late 2002, the First Friday festival, a monthly cash cow for downtown businesses, experienced the negative impact of rapidly growing crowds. The escalating levels of late-night debauchery and rowdiness led to an alarmed public and a scaling back of the event.

For many months, the event and the spending stayed at a simmer and not a boil, Mr. Yonesaki said.

Even if the crowds that were scared away return, though, business experts say bars can't be the lone torchbearer for downtown revitalization.

"Many cities have talked about bars and nightlife as a foundation for rejuvenation, but the reality is that population has little elasticity and is fad-oriented," said Stan Eichelbaum, the president of the retail consulting and research firm Marketing Developments Inc. in Cincinnati.

Such development can be an interim step to full-fledged revitalization but must be bolstered by strong residential growth, a robust retail sector and a thriving service industry, he said.

"It's the end of the yuppie cycle," he said, "The yuppie went from the office to the bar stool from 5 p.m. to 5:01 p.m., but today they're working until 8 and have two kids in the suburbs."

It is family activities that will grow the pie, he said.

In Augusta, entertainment is limited to going out to eat and drink and going to the movies, Mr. Yonesaki said. There need to be more activities to bring people downtown, he said.

"We don't go to shows or to museums. We need to develop a retail base, and somewhere along the line we're going to have to be pro-active about attracting a destination-type business (downtown) like Banana Republic," he said.

Efforts to revitalize the downtown area need to be boosted or the progress already made will be eroded, said David Fort, co-owner of Room 9, a downtown martini lounge that opened last summer.

On top of competition among downtown nightspots, largely owned by a group of thirtysomethings on good terms with one another, is competition between downtown and west Augusta and Columbia County.

"The more that's added in Columbia County, as far as chains, shopping, restaurants and bars, the less traffic is going to come downtown," Mr. Fort said. "If more places pop up in Columbia County, downtown Augusta could suffer the same fate it suffered during the late '70s and early '80s."

Future looking up

Downtown Augusta's revitalization is headed in the right direction, but nothing happens overnight, said Chris Naylor, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.

"It is a growing area. I think it's happening, but it's a slow process," he said.

For years, downtown was proverbially 20 to 30 years away from being where it should be, said Terry Brogan, co-owner of the Soul Bar and owner of the recently opened Ballroom Billiards.

More places are opening and trying to make it, and downtown might now be 10 years away, Mr. Brogan said.

"We're getting closer," he said. "It's incredibly hard."

Getting Augusta's downtown to mirror more successful city centers, however, will require teamwork and successful marketing - anything to bring the people downtown.

A clear set of goals is needed to speed the rejuvenation's momentum, said Brad Owens, who opened the Hale Tiki lounge last April.

"There is no joint strategy for retail, restaurants and bars. We have to work together. There is no common strategy and goal that we can all agree on," he said.

Paul King, the secretary of the authority and the owner of many downtown properties, said he thinks there's plenty of pie to go around.

"It might be in west Augusta or Columbia County, but those people will come downtown," he said. The biggest challenge is one of marketing.

"I think success comes to those who seek it," he said, "not those who wait for it come to them."

Reach Adrian Burns at (706) 823-3352 or adrian.burns@augustachronicle.com.