Todd Bowe said his former business, Novel Tea, was at the “cheap end” of Wilton Drive – the southern portion across the street from city hall. But even that wasn’t cheap enough. Bowe said high rent was one of the reasons he and his partner, Rey Delgado, sold their businesses at the end of July.
“For a little mom and pop, it was just another factor in having to move on.” He also cited a slow summer. “Once season ended . . . it seemed like there was a large drop. We didn’t have the locals that we had in the past to fill in summer. We had some local support, but we weren’t able to expand.”
It's a story that gets retold over and over up and down the city’s most well-known boulevard, and one of Broward’s most popular dining and drinking destinations.
One business owner who asked to have his name withheld, said high rents are a definitely big factor in why many businesses close. But he also blamed lack of community support. Most of his business’ revenue comes from outside the city, and said that Wilton Drive’s reputation as a bar and restaurant designation tends to hurt the retail businesses. “The buzz is about bars. Most Wilton Manors residents do not shop on The Drive. Because of that, people have to close or move away.”
The most recent example is Pink Sub, which is moving to Oakland Park.
“It just got way too expensive for me, especially on the side of The Drive where I am. I had a great opportunity to take a space in the [Oakland Park] Culinary District [near Oakland Park Boulevard and Dixie Highway] where I don't have to worry about another sub shop or deli moving right next me,” said Dawn Holloway, owner of Pink Sub. “It's been an amazing almost 10 years but it's time to move forward with Pink Sub.”
But high rents and slow traffic can be overcome, said Santiago Gonzalez, manager at Sensation Tattoo. “I think where a lot of businesses fail is they don’t prepare for summer.” He also cited the nature of some of the “untraditional” businesses, which don’t always catch on.
Bubbles & Pearls owner Josie Smith Malave echoed Gonzalez.
She said she looked for a space in Oakland Park for her restaurant but found rents there equally as expensive but without the same level of popularity as Wilton Drive. She called her rent “fair” and said that business owners need to give people reasons to come spend their money. “We’ve got to keep our game tight . . . build our reputation in the fall and keep it in the summer.”
But it would also help, she added, if business owners and property owners could work together to invest in the city.
Asked if there was anything the city could do to address rents, City Manager Leigh Ann Henderson said no. But she did point to the city’s support of the Wilton Drive Lane Elimination Project, which city officials say will benefit businesses, and the instillation of wayfinding signs to make it easier for visitors to find businesses and other points of interest. She also said the city supports Stonewall, Wicked Manors and other events that bring large groups of visitors and potential customers to the city.
Henderson said the city’s business permit system is also being continually reviewed for improvements and that the entire system would soon be moved completely online.
But, said Commissioner Scott Newton, business owners also “have to do their part” by providing quality service and products and by making sure they have enough parking. One way to do that, he said, is by making sure employees don’t take up valuable parking spaces that would otherwise be used by customers. If the most convenient parking spaces are left open, customers will be more inclined to patronize businesses.
Tim Moffit, president of the Wilton Manors Business Association, said he thinks improved communication between the city and business owners can help lead to a more business-friendly atmosphere.
“The businesses need to know that Wilton Manors truly wants to help them to come to and stay in Wilton Manors and conversely Wilton Manors needs to reach out its hand and say to businesses that they do care and that they're there to help. I've attended the Economic Development Task Force meetings as well as the city commission meetings recently and I see movement in a positive direction. It may appear slow in moving, but I do see a positive trend,” Moffit wrote in an email. “Landlords, on the other hand, need to realize that high rents are killing the small business person. It becomes difficult to attract new businesses let alone keep existing businesses when landlords are charging outrageous rents. Perhaps if there were tax incentives in place for landlords to rent to new businesses that might be a start. Not knowing the logistics of how it all works, I can't say for sure. What I can say is that if something doesn't change, we're apt to see more vacancies along Wilton Drive and surrounding areas and that will not be good for anyone.”