Struggling on Daniel Island

The Family Circle Cup tennis tournament draws thousands to Daniel Island each year, but business owners say it doesn't help them much.

It's a quiet Thursday afternoon at Daniel Island's busiest shopping center, and in the absence of customers, Kathryn Ives is rearranging the sale racks inside her children's boutique, Doodlebugs.

Slow days like this are common, she says. Her store gets infrequent visits from those who work in nearby offices, parents who are picking up their children from school and the occasional resident out for a stroll.

"There's not anyone just walking around," she said. "You have to create your own foot traffic."

So for four years, that's what she and her business partner, Susan Jackson, have tried to do. They created an e-mail list for loyal customers, and their sales sometimes draw shoppers from relatively distant neighborhoods in Summerville and West Ashley.

Still, Ives doesn't sound happy when she talks about the health of Daniel Island's business district. Neither did two dozen other business owners who attended a city-sponsored business planning session Thursday morning.

Many business owners said they are having trouble convincing customers to drive across a bridge to shop in their stores and eat at their restaurants, leading, they say, an unusually high number of businesses there to fail.

When speaker and marketing executive Nat Davis suggested that the business community target the lucrative East Cooper market, selling residents there on a day-long shopping experience on the island, one restaurant owner responded, "I don't know what is here in terms of selling Daniel Island."

Gary White, a Daniel Island resident and city councilman, helped organize the forum so small-business owners would recognize "that there are a tremendous amount of resources out there," he said.

Several Daniel Island businesses have failed after not having strict business plans, he said. And as the economy slows, he said, he wanted to help existing business owners prepare.

Speakers from the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Convention and Visitor's Bureau addressed how their organizations promote businesses, while a representative from the Small Business Development Council dispensed bits of advice, such as "capitalize on your niche" and "even Coca Cola has to advertise."

Attendees said the session was helpful, but they complained that there's only so much that individual business owners can do to improve their situation.

The forum evolved into a session about what can be done to liven up the island's struggling business district.

White described the current town center as "spotty," with an unusually high rate of empty stores, though he noted that it has attracted a large number of banks and other finance-related firms.

The vacancy rate and ever-changing roster of stores make it tough to lure a steady stream of shoppers, he and others agreed.

The Family Circle Cup tennis tournament, which draws thousands of spectators to the area each spring, actually worsens the business climate, many attendees said.

Event coordinators close some of the main roads, and regular customers often avoid the island, assuming the area is swarming with visitors.

Some attendees said the neighborhood's main commercial building owners, including the island's developer, the Daniel Island Co., worsen the situation.

With commercial building ownership in the hands of just a few real estate companies, they can charge inflated rents, said Erik Brine, president of the Daniel Island Neighborhood Association.

Market statistics from Grubb & Ellis/Barkley Fraser show that office rents averaged $25.38 per square foot, just 10 cents less than space in Mount Pleasant. Downtown rates were higher, while North Charleston and West Ashley office renters paid less.

The prices don't match demand, Brine said.

Matt Sloan, president of the Daniel Island Co., said it's a misconception that his company owns a large amount of commercial space on the island. Most space, though developed by the company, has been sold to small business partnerships, he said. "My company barely owns anything," he said.

For several years the Daniel Island Co. has worked with a Charlotte development firm to try to attract high-end retailers that Sloan said would draw shoppers across the bridge. He declined to name specific retailers the company is targeting.

Sloan said the project is "going better than one might expect, given the economy," but company executives are still waiting for other high-profile retailers to move into the Charleston market.

In the meantime, business owners at the forum said they plan to ask Sloan's company for help.

Some forum attendees suggested creative solutions such as short-term, low-rent leases for startup companies or a profit-sharing agreement with landlords who lease out space.

"What are you going to do for business now?" asked Greg Turner, president of the Daniel Island Business Association and office manager at Island Eye Care.

"Nobody can put in their individual business plans that, in four years, things will be better. We have to deal with the business environment now."