By Celia Belmonte
RED BANK – During a time of economic turmoil, borough merchants and those in the business community have differing views on the state of the town’s business landscape and conflicting feelings about its future.
For some business owners, there are far too many vacant storefronts along the city’s most popular drags. Others say they know that looks can be deceiving and that there are more businesses slated to open. After a tough economic period, they say, there are reasons to be optimistic.
“The building that I am looking at across the street from me on Broad Street has been vacant for four years now,” said Vinnie Woods, manager of Love Lane Tuxedos. “That is disgraceful.”
Employees at Mr. Pizza Slice, the 16-year-old pizzeria on Monmouth Street, agree.
“The lack of occupancy in town hurts our business,” said Phil Sloan of Mr. Pizza Slice. “Companies like Lucas Oil and Wells Fargo have moved out taking their employees with them so less people are around who used to stop in for a meal.”
Additionally, a few businesses have moved out of town, doing little to suppress the qualms of current business owners.
Space Interiors, the furniture and design store located on White Street at the corner of English Plaza, is relocating to Deal. Paw Palace at 16 Monmouth St. is moving to 333 Silverside Ave. in Little Silver. It will have the same ownership and grooming staff and will be called The Dog Spaw’ Grooming Salon.
“For our type of business a Red Bank location does not suit us,” said Alaina Jawidowicz of Paw Palace. “Lack of parking for our customers… is an issue. Deliveries of heavy merchandise, like dog food, are also hard due to the parking situation.”
Others see Red Bank’s business district in a different light.
“I’m very excited about what’s happening downtown,” said Jay Herman of Downtown Investors, a development firm that owns office and retail space in Red Bank. “There’s a lot of good going on.”
Herman, who has been a member of the Red Bank RiverCenter executive board since its inception, said that, while some may see empty storefronts, he knows that a good number of them – at least 15 by his count – will be filled soon. Several business owners have signed leases but have yet to open.
The perception that stores are empty is wrong, he said. “Most of the vacant space isn’t really vacant. It takes a long time to open” a new business.
Reasons for the delays include getting borough permits and certifications, financing, construction issues and possible inexperience of first-time business owners who need time to work out the details of their new ventures, Herman said.
“Red Bank’s comeback is remarkable” after a period of economic downturn which hit most people hard four years ago, Herman said. “If you take a drive down, say Route 35 from Hazlet to Brielle, you will find vacancy rates much higher in those areas than in Red Bank.”
“Red Bank is reinventing itself,” said Sharon Fisler, owner of Wayne’s Market. The market has been a Red Bank staple ever since her late brother, Wayne Fisler, opened the wine, food store and catering business 37 years ago.
Wayne’s Market will soon get some new neighbors as Jr’s West End, a popular Long Branch late-night burger joint, will open another location in the former home of Zuleyka’s Kitchen. Boardwalk Fresh Burgers and Fries will move into the original home of Zebu Forno.
Another newcomer is Char Steakhouse, taking over the former site of Ashes Cigar Bar on Broad Street
“Char is going full blast,” Red Bank RiverCenter Executive Director Nancy Adams said. “They are doing $2 million in renovations to that building. They are going to have glass windows all the way up and down.” Char plans to open what Adams calls a “first-class restaurant” this fall.
RiverCenter is focusing on businesses moving into Red Bank, viewing new additions as vital to the city’s unique economic evolution.
“People see stores boarded up and paper on the windows and think they are vacant,” Adams said. “Some places have ‘Coming Soon’ signs but some do not. That does not mean that they are not committed and leased. It is not as bad as people may think. Perception is not reality.”
Adams notes plans for a new Subway Café on Broad Street, a health food store next to Smoothie King and hopes a Red Bank location will appeal to more national retailers.
“I work with a retail broker and we are trying to get national tenants,” Adams said. “National retailers tend to have longer leases, nice merchandise and stay open later.”
Larger stores like Urban Outfitters, Restoration Hardware and Tiffany & Co., all along Broad Street, have done considerably well in Red Bank over the years.
However, there are no intentions to shut out Red Bank’s mom-and-pop shops.
“The RiverCenter does not want to duplicate a mall,” Adams said. “Small, independent retail stores create a nice mix and are what make people come to Red Bank. They are what makes it unique.”
The owners of a new gluten-free cupcake store, Posh Pop Bakeshop, could not be happier with choosing to open the company’s first store in Red Bank.
“Red Bank seemed like the ideal place,” said Matthew Pytel, chief sales director at Posh Pop. “I have seen a lot of customers return, even some daily. So far we have performed above expectations.”
It appears that securing some sense of economic stability in Red Bank will be about business originality and reinvention.
Patti Siciliano, owner of Funk & Standard, will relocate the 14-year-old Red Bank clothing store to 7 Broad St. where she will focus more on expanding her Yummy Yummy Good Stuff juice bar.
In addition, after a recent move up Broad Street, Zebu Forno has once again closed its doors as owner Andrew Gennusa plans to team up with Red Bank resident Biagio Schiano to create Biagio Wood-Fired Pizza.
Rumson China & Glass also will be moving to space in the borough, as will a photographer and a consignment shop. A Broad Street salon is moving from an upstairs space to a space twice the size on the street, Herman said.
Herman points to other positive indicators for the business district’s health. That includes new housing being built in the area, such as the 60 units that are under construction at The Atrium at Navesink Harbor on Riverside Avenue. He also points to the expansion at Morgan Stanley, a project handled by his company, making it the third largest Morgan Stanley office in the Northeast, after New York and Boston – larger than even the firm’s Philadelphia office.
“I am frustrated by how long it takes people to get new businesses open but I am excited that it’s happening,” Herman said.
“I think the future looks very good,” he said. “I see what’s happening in Red Bank and the immediate future looks very rosy … I am very optimistic.”