There is a lot of debate in Kirkland lately. On one hand we have developers willing to put millions of dollars into downtown Kirkland to create more office space, retail, residential, and restaurants. Here is a recent story about the Kirkland Parkplace proposal for reference in case you haven't been following along: http://www.pnwlocalnews.com/east_king/kir/news/19986329.html
On other hand there is always an argument to keep Kirkland's existing small town feel. It's such a hot topic lately that we even have a group in Kirkland called Kirkland Citizens for Responsible Development. I keep reading about this group in the Kirkland Courier opposing everything that is being proposed. Since the stories never elaborate much on what this group would like to see in Kirkland I went to their website (click the link above). No list of members. No mission statement. No vision for Kirkland. No alternative solutions. Just a lot of content on why everything is bad and that we need to fight it all. But this story isn't about the big development projects and who is for or against.
Janis and I have been thinking about the challenges facing existing businesses in downtown Kirkland. I am not talking about QFC, or TGI Fridays, or Subway. I am talking about independent small business owners who are putting their heart and soul (and their money) into running a retail store in downtown Kirkland.
We polled 4 local business owners and although we got almost everyone we asked to provide us with answers, they all opted to stay anonymous . All but one are located in the downtown core (spread on different streets/amongst different landlords) and none are businesses similar to each other. First we wanted to get an idea of their monthly rent, square footage, and monthly operating costs. Then we asked how long they have run their business in Kirkland, why they chose Kirkland, what their biggest challenges are, and finally what the city is doing to support them and enable their success.
Lets look at the numbers first. Our business owners represented stores from just under 1000 square feet to over 2000 square feet--none of them have been operating in Kirkland for more than four years. The rent per square foot varies widely. Everything from about $1.75 per square foot per month up to almost $3.25 per square foot per month (BTW, I know this isn't how commercial real estate breaks out the fees, but it makes more sense to me so let's go with it). In addition to the monthly rent being in the thousands, all these owners have operating costs (employees, utilities, licenses, taxes, insurance, equipment, signs, advertising, web site, improvements, infrastructure, etc.) well in excess of the rent figures. Here our business owners have to pay anywhere from three to ten grand in addition to their rent--then there are inventory costs!
So what do all the numbers mean? Basically these business owners start each month no less than $10,000 in the hole in expenses. Some over $20,000 a month. None of our business owners had an average sale size over $200 so they have to get good volume to just break even each month, let alone reap a nice profit. For example, if their total operating costs are $15,000 per month and their average deal size is $100 they need to get 150 paying customers in a month just to break even.
So why did they choose Kirkland? Most of the responses indicated a connection to Kirkland. Either the owners lived here, loved the feel of downtown, or have worked in Kirkland previously. Basically they have some affinity towards Kirkland!
So what did they say where the biggest challenges running a business in Kirkland? All the responses were pretty consistent: "dealing with parking for sure"; "unpredictable people traffic...and PARKING/tickets from parking officers!!! Our customers complain about parking every day."; and "traffic jams into/out of town in the nice weather, lack of any reasonable parking, lack of any customer traffic in the winter months".
What did they say the city was doing to support them and enable their success? Again, the responses were very consistent: "not a whole lot"; "nothing"; "the city allows us to operate, that's about it"; "nothing with any substance. Downtown needs more parking...office development would help create captive customers during the day and more upscale restaurants/bars would help in the evening".
So what do we take from all this? Business owners love Kirkland and would like to see it successful. What they need is more customers who can get to them easily without having to think about parking, let alone bumper to bumper traffic and/or getting a ticket. Until we figure this all out between the city, the developers, and naysayers--let's support our local businesses whenever possible!
My two cents worth. Give us yours by commenting...Steve