Walking through the La Mesa downtown area known as the Village, it is striking to see numerous signs testifying to change in this area of small businesses: real estate and property management signs, in the windows of Lars Construction, San Flippos’s Pizza, Handful of Wildflowers, What a Dish, and the Country Loft.
Other signs indicate businesses are closing, such as Antiques @ the Village and Blumenthal Jewelers. And still other signs tell of businesses that have moved, such as Don Keating Motors and Shakespeare’s Corner Shop.
Some of the businesses, like San Filippo’s Pizza and the Country Loft, are reportedly closing or leaving their current sites because the owners are retiring. Others have spoken about other changes underway in La Mesa, including periodic festival events like Oktoberfest.
In 2015, the elimination of the artist and craft theme, together with the reduction in size and times, led some to conclude Oktoberfest may be part of the past and not the future.
The former owner of now-closed Handful of Wildflowers, Sherri Buck, may have best captured those sentiments when saying, “The city doesn't care about the festivals.” This was echoed by one of her customers, longtime La Mesa resident Gayle Cates, who observed, “Those days are gone.”
For other small businesses, the nearly 18 months of construction associated with the La Mesa Streetscape project may have effectively sounded a death knell.
What a Dish, one of the shops that is closing, has been owned and operated by Frank Dittmer for roughly three years. According to Dittmer, “Over half of my time in business was destroyed by La Mesa’s street-improvement project.”
Attributing a 75 percent drop in sales to the construction, Dittmer observed that parts of La Mesa Boulevard were closed during some of the “busiest shopping days of the entire year”; specifically, the two weeks prior to Christmas in December 2015.
Illustrating the impact of Streetscape construction on his business, Dittmer provided two photographs. In one, the street construction in front of his storefront shows that neither motor vehicle nor pedestrian traffic was possible. In the other, taken shortly after he arrived to open the store one morning, he found that the construction workers had “chained off” the entry to his store, even placing a lunch cooler in the entryway.
After taking the pictures, Dittmer closed the store and went home for the day. Once more the construction made it virtually impossible to run his business; there had been no coordination with Dittmer by city hall or the construction company.
One new business owner, Aaron Henderson of soon-to-open Public Square, commented about coming to the village after the construction associated with Streetscape was completed.
“Previous folks were losing thousands of dollars a month due to the construction,” said Henderson. “And that’s a pretty common story for businesses here in the village.”
The reported sharp rise in lease costs after the completion of Streetscape could also be a contributing factor to the store closures.
Noting that one storefront will now lease for $5000 per month, Dittmer mused that maybe the arts-and-crafts mom-and-pop businesses are being priced out of the village because “you have sell a lot of candles to pay a $5000 lease.”