Consumer-oriented downtown businesses benefit from foreign spenders
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Downtown's business pulse is getting mixed readings.
Some consumer-oriented businesses profit from foreign spenders, others suffer the side effects of an ailing economy and some new move-ins bank on luring the area's condo crowd.
Family-owned La Epoca, a boutique department store on East Flagler Street, has witnessed the highs and lows of downtown since opening in 1965.
Owners reported a 25% increase in first-quarter sales, fueled by the influx of South American and European tourists and cruise ship crews, said Randy Alonso, vice president of La Epoca. Crews shop downtown when their ships reach the Port of Miami.
In 2005, the store changed downtown locations, moving across Flagler into the historic 25,000-square-foot, five-story former Walgreens building.
The next change was its image. The department store adopted a high-end image, bringing in notable designer merchandise such as Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior, Mr. Alonso said.
He said new high-rises around downtown and Brickell such as The Loft 2 are bringing in new customers as well as a few employees.
"Many Brickell consumers now know they have this kind of merchandise right in their backyard," Mr. Alonso said.
Tony Alonso, La Epoca's president, has experienced first-hand downtown's economic trends for four decades.
The 1980s were profitable for retailers in the area, he said, but the '90s were challenging, with downtown deteriorating and many businesses closing doors. In recent years, he said, business has picked up, due in part to city initiatives.
The Miami Downtown Development Authority, chaired by city Commissioner Joe Sanchez, has focused on cleaning up the area.
The authority is a public-private, non-profit organization that guides downtown development with plans to make it a vibrant urban center with commerce, culture, tourism and urban living.
Tony Alonso, an authority board member, said city initiatives to repave the streets and increased security are making downtown more attractive to locals and visitors.
But other area business owners whose consumer base is largely local are suffering the economic slowdown.
Jose Goyanes, who owns several downtown businesses, is cutting back on expenses and hearing consumer sentiment.
"I hear the grumbling and complaints from consumers, even from those not feeling the pinch," he said.
Mr. Goyanes owns three Metro Beauty Center stores and upscale barber shop Churchill's and is a partner in La Loggia Restaurant.
He doesn't plan to hire new employees and is trimming his budget to reduce spending.
With the economy affecting everyone across the supply chain, Mr. Goyanes is taking advantage of special deals offered by some manufacturers who aren't moving inventory.
These discounts, he said, will compensate for the extra amount he's spending for German and Italian products, which now cost more because of the euro's higher value against the dollar.
But Mr. Goyanes is optimistic that residential developments will attract a new crowd to downtown, especially on weekends when there's more parking and fewer crowds.
Mr. Goyanes, who opened his flagship Metro Beauty store 14 years ago, said he's glad to see the Downtown Development Authority, of which he is a board member, beautifying the district.
But he said property owners need to do their part in keeping downtown clean.
"I think some of the landlords need to take more responsibility on how their businesses look, Mr. Goyanes said.
Commissioner Sanchez, who was recently re-elected Downtown Development Authority chairman, gave up other committee appointments in the city to focus on improving downtown, which he described as "Miami's economic engine."
The private sector, city and county need to work together and "bring solutions to the table," he said.
"Government is the problem," he said. "We have to provide the solutions, and we need less bureaucracy."
Mr. Sanchez plans to improve mobility by joining efforts with the city's transportation department and improving the pedestrian experience.
As an avenue to create greener spaces, landscaping and pavement improvements are under way. They include redoing streets and sidewalks, installing new traffic signals and adding street furniture.
Safety continues to be a priority with the Ambassadors program, which adds another set of eyes and ears to the local police and provides pedestrian assistance, he said.
"We need a vibrant downtown where people can live, work and play," Mr. Sanchez said.
As the development and modernization of downtown continues, some restaurateurs are seeing the potential.
Phil Roberts, who just opened Manny's Steakhouse on South Biscayne Boulevard, said he chose the location for the nationally-ranked steakhouse because he sees downtown as the city's "power corner."
"It's too early to reveal numbers or make predictions, but Manny's is already reeling in big numbers in sales," he said.
His company, Parasole Restaurants Holdings, is also a shareholder of The Oceanaire Seafood Room, which opened on South Miami Avenue last year.
The new restaurant, he said, will focus on delivering "killer" service, an area in which Miami needs improvement. He said he hopes his steakhouse sets an example.
The restaurant's general manager, David Wilson, said the steakhouse's "outdoor patio overlooking the bay is attracting a mix of business travelers and residents."
Mr. Roberts said he's excited to see what downtown will look like once several high-end developments are finished.
As more condos are built, more retailers and restaurateurs are going to be attracted to downtown because it's the next financial prospect, he predicted.
"We love competition," Mr. Roberts said. "We'd rather go head-to-head with everybody and duke it out based on food and service."