Catch-22 seen in retail survey results

-A A +A
By Arin McKenna

The MainStreet survey on what Los Alamos residents want in dining and shopping was the topic of discussion at Thursday’s Chamber Breakfast, which drew approximately 40 people. Business owners seemed unsurprised by the results, but struggled with how to implement some of the suggestions. 


The desire for stores and restaurants to stay open later sparked considerable debate.

“That’s expressed in every survey I know of for 35 years, and when you try to respond to it, there’s no complimentary response,” said CB Fox owner Dave Fox. 

Fox described a time when businesses made a concerted effort to stay open until 7 p.m. during the week, until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and from 12–4 p.m. on Sundays for an entire year. 

“What we did was get the same segment of shoppers spread over a longer time for a whole lot greater cost,” Fox said.

Someone else described the extensive advertising the chamber and businesses did for that experiment. 

“Everyone knew in this town and they just didn’t take advantage of it,” he said.

Someone suggested the demographics of the county–with a large aging population on one hand and young families on the other–is not  one inclined to be out in the evenings. The older generation is also less inclined to shop in general.

Linda Deck, executive director of the Bradbury Science Museum, wondered if the new Smith’s Marketplace will encourage residents to stay in town later. Someone else suggested gauging impact by getting a baseline for traffic patterns now and comparing it to traffic patterns once the store opens.

Buffalo Tours Co-owner Georgia Strickfaden pointed out that there is plenty of traffic downtown but–aside from tourists–not enough foot traffic. 

“The problem is that it’s busy with cars and not with people walking,” Strickfaden said. “And it’s people on foot that are going to walk into a store and buy something, especially between the Bradbury Science Museum and the Historical Museum. We want them on their feet so we get them into the businesses.”

Fox contends this conversation will continue another 35 years unless county officials make efforts to fix what he sees as the underlying problem. 

“What we’ve always known we need and any community planner knows it, is that there needs to be a critical mass of businesses together, their storefronts touch one another. And here we’ve got this dispersed community,” Fox said. 

“So we can have these meetings over and over and over again, and if this fundamental fact of development isn’t addressed, then we’re going to have these meetings over and over and over again, and the subject will always be the same…It’s going to be decisions at the governmental level that cause the configuration of the town to be what it needs to be in order to create this critical mass.”

Former Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation Executive Director Kevin Holsapple asserted that the newly delineated Creative District could be used to encourage consolidation and also provide help for small businesses wanting to locate within the district but who may be intimidated by obstacles such as high rent.

The cost of commercial rent was front and center during the meeting. 

“I can remember when TG&Y (a sizable five & dime chain) had most of the corner Dixie Girl is on now,” said KRSN owner Gillian Sutton.

 “They moved because they could not renegotiate a lease they could afford. They went down to Mari Mac.”

“When I tell people what my rent is they are aghast. They can’t believe it,” said Pet Pangaea owner Cyndi Wells.

“The only higher rent rates I can find are places like a small retail space next to the Lensic, which is slightly higher than what I pay. But everywhere else, even in Santa Fe, it is lower outside this community, and that is an issue. When you’re looking at your margin, with what you have to pay employees, the percentage is too high.”

Wells said she is currently paying $22 per square foot. She has also been negotiating for space at the Trinity Site and reported that Kroger’s is asking $27 per square foot. 

In spite of that, Wells said her prices are competitive with the big box stores and that she stays open on Sundays and until 7 p.m. in the evening. She advocated for a coordinated campaign to combat the image of curtailed shopping hours and higher prices. 

Sombrillo Nursing & Rehabilitation Center Community Liaison Mary Yamada noted that for major purchases it is usually cheaper to shop in Santa Fe and that a search for variety also sends shoppers down the Hill. 

“Even factoring in the gas sometimes I can do all my shopping in Santa Fe and save a lot of money,” Yamada said. 

“I try to shop at CB Fox, but they can’t always carry what I need. If I want blue bath towels, I have to go to Santa Fe to get blue bath towels because I can only find beige.

“There are limits to what people can do, and I think it’s the cost of space. They can’t stock everything I need. They can’t offer sales like you get other places because the rents are so high.

“We can’t be blasé about this. It affects not only those who want to start a business; it affects those who are here and what they can sell and how they can sell it.”

Councilor Pete Sheehey suggested that tax incentives and disincentives might be a way to encourage businesses to maintain their property and offer competitive pricing, although he added that property taxes are so low in Los Alamos it is difficult to offer much incentive. 

Someone else noted that rents started dropping in Santa Fe when there were enough vacant properties to exert market pressure. 

Karen Paramanandam, who ran businesses in Santa Fe for several years, suggested negotiating lower rents in exchange for a percentage of profits. 

“It has been done in this town, and, unfortunately, it led to large fights that often ended in court. I think people who know about that would be very reluctant to do that again,” said Matthew Miles, vice president of New Mexico Bank & Trust.

“What I’m hearing is that there is no silver bullet. It’s a complex problem,” said Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce Member Services Coordinator Katy Korkos. She offered to facilitate continued meetings on the topic if business owners were interested.  

Katie Stavert, business advisor for Los Alamos Business Assistance Services, offered to meet with business owners individually to discuss specific areas of interest in the survey results.