EMPTY WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY?

65-broadA year after taking over space from the short-lived Nevada Exchange store — which itself followed the short-tenured Maison Blanche — D’Angelico Guitars has left Red Bank. (Photo bu Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

With all the empty storefronts and ‘for sale or lease’ signs downtown, it might be hard to see a silver lining for Red Bank’s economy.rcsm2_010508

Scattered along on Broad and Front streets, windows show reflections and hollowed-out stores, not merchandise.

Or they’re plastered with contact information, like one downtown cornerstone, Ashes Cigar Club, which was abruptly shut down during the height of the summer bustle.

But there’s still hope for Red Bank, says Nancy Adams, executive director of RiverCenter, and things aren’t all that bad when you look at the larger economic picture.

Those empty storefronts have opened the door for new ventures in town, she said. And there’s lots of interest in Red Bank, she said.

“There are people looking,” Adams said. “Some of these vacancies have given an opportunity to people who have wanted to come here.”

Behind the scenes, she said, deals are being negotiated and leases signed.

At the forefront of curiosity is Ashes, which was shut down by a court-appointed official in July. Neither Adams nor building owner Jack Anderson was willing to speak to it yet, but Anderson is working with a prospective tenant for the large space at the corner of Broad and Mechanic streets.

“It’s a big, bad spot to be vacant,” Adams said.

Another gap on Broad is near the corner of Wallace Street, where Nevada Exchange recently cleared out its stock of D’Angelico guitars. Last year, the business — there’s another location in Shrewsbury — switched from an antique shop and guitar dealer to strictly sell the esoteric axes. Why the business left town isn’t clear.

But while exits have been made, Adams said there are positive things happening, be it new businesses coming or existing businesses holding their own, or in some cases, exceeding expectations.

For example, the Front Street space that has, twice now, been home to Zuleyka’s Kitchen — which slipped out of town as quickly and quietly as it re-entered — is close to being occupied by another food establishment, although Adams won’t attach a name to it.

At 88 Broad, a new beauty store is set to open within the next couple weeks. The spot, formerly Eye Candy shoes, is the perfect location for Lux, said owner Linda Martino.

“It’s a trendy town and we were hoping for the foot traffic,” said Martino, of Oceanport. “We’ve always liked Red Bank. It just seemed like a nice community where not only people from the area come, but people from other places come, too.”

That was a draw for Martino, but Adams said there are other reasons prospective tenants are looking at Red Bank. A big one: the longtime businesses and the ones that are thriving, like Urban Outfitters.

Adams said Urban is outperforming most, if not all, of its New Jersey stores — certainly its mall-based ones.

“At the very least they’re doing awesome,” she said.

Also doing awesome is the enviro-friendly pizza chain Pizza Fusion.

“We’re the No.1 store in the chain,” owner Paul Finkler said. “So, yeah, so far, so good.”

Pizza Fusion, along with three new stores on Broad — Scottrade, Staples and  the soon-to-be-opened consignment shop Double Take — show that there’s heavy interest in making downtown Red Bank a home, says Geoff Brothers, a 30-year real estate veteran in town.

“These are four good leases within, what, the last nine months on Broad?” he said. “It’s not all that bad. Yes, there are vacancies, but do we really think that we’re so special that we’re not going to feel the impact of the economy?”

Rental rates, an object of complaint among business owners who say they are too high, have been reduced in some places to make downtown more attractive to prospective tenants, he said. But the rates fluctuate from owner to owner, he said, and aren’t always the key factor in closing a deal. In one spot, you can pay $30 per square-foot — a “significant” compromise for the area, Brothers said — and next to it, pay $18 per square-foot. Often it’s the location’s characteristics that play a major factor, he said; pricier spaces can sell while the cheaper ones sit vacant for months, or even years at a time.

“So a lot of it has to do with the type of structure, the amount of space,” he said.

Adams, who is aggressively recruiting businesses to either start up or expand in Red Bank, says she has a lot of ways to sell the town even though the economy is still shaky at best. And when stacked up against other comparable downtowns, Adams says Red Bank is holding its own.

“The economic climate is bad just like everywhere else,” she said, but, “a lot of the businesses that have been here for a long time are working hard to hold on. And they’re doing that.”

Brothers recently drove through downtown Lorain, Ohio, a place he said is comparable to Red Bank, and there were only two stores open. The level of activity downtown, which he said still is the vibrant economic center of the area, is an accomplishment given the reality of the national real estate market.

“It’s staggering out there,” Brothers said. “The fact that (Red Bank) is doing as well as it is is the story.”

Economic development officials from across the state will get to compare how their towns are faring when Downtown New Jersey holds its annual meeting at the Molly Pitcher Inn on September 28.