Real Estate - Commercial

Downtown Can Thank Cotton Exchange For Occupancy Rates

By Megan Shepard | Archives

In early December, Nancy Bullock, general manager of the Cotton Exchange, leased out the sole vacant storefront, leaving the Cotton Exchange at one hundred percent occupancy.  Despite the economic downturn, Cotton Exchange retailers are optimistic and many have reported an increase in sales, according to Bullock.
“As a merchant I see that people are still willing to open up stores and take that risk. I know it is difficult for some people, but the Wilmington area is growing. That’s a positive sign,” said Joan Loch, owner of Crescent Moon.
“Just in the last few months [of 2008] I’ve seen a little bit of a downturn, but not anything that worries me,” said Laura Lambert of the Celtic Shop. “There have been years when there have been vacant shops, but I think with all of the building and renovations going on downtown, things will continue to get better.”
Bullock and Cotton Exchange shop owners cite a number of
reasons for the success of the
historic complex.
Shop owners say that location is a key factor. “North Front Street is anchored by the Cotton Exchange’s diverse retail and office space,” says John Hinnant of Wilmington Downtown, Inc. The organization was founded 33 years ago to promote revitalization and business retention downtown, the same year that the Cotton Exchange opened its doors.  The Cotton Exchange has built-in customers from office employees who work within the complex and nearby, as well as an influx of three to five thousand students a day from nearby Cape Fear Community College.
The Exchange is in close vicinity to downtown Wilmington’s real and projected growth, with the addition of the PPD building and the future additions of the Convention Center and several new hotels. North Front Street’s change from a one way to a two way street has also brought in more traffic.
“During the downturn, businesses are looking for that prime location,” Hinnant said. The Cotton Exchange, and North Front, may be that prime location. He cites occupancy rates along Front Street in general as high, noting that the demolition of the Wachovia building as helping to
fill available office space elsewhere downtown.
Hunter Brown has owned the kite store Blowing in the Wind for eight years, and has been in the Cotton Exchange for the last six years. Before he moved to the Cotton Exchange, his shop was on Front Street. “People would come in and ask for directions to the Cotton Exchange and then turn around and leave,” Brown said, “so we joined them.”
Loch heads up the Exchange’s advertising committee. She and her husband Mike bought the Crescent Moon two years ago. “Business has been very good,” Loch said.  She credits some of Exchange’s success to the fact that the merchants pool their resources to pay for advertising and to sponsor events, such as music in the courtyard, that bring the public to the space.
Last year, the group hired an advertising agency on a retainer basis, and Loch said this has been a good move. “They are always thinking of us and pitching ideas.”
She said that their dollar budget for advertising hasn’t changed, but the retainer relationship has been effective. Also, as a group, they have a bigger advertising budget than a single shop would. “We are keeping track of how downtown is evolving,” Loch said, and the group uses change to their advantage.
As to the economy, Loch said that Crescent Moon felt a slowdown in October, but sales began to pick up in November. “We have seen that more people are paying with cash and debit cards rather than credit cards.”
Bullock attributes the success of the Cotton Exchange during the economic slowdown to the tenacity of the store owners. “Our stores are owner-operated. The owners are there every day. It is their livelihood.”
The Cotton Exchange has always been a tourist destination, and still is. “Ninety percent of our business comes from tourists,” says Pam Greenough of Port City Pottery. But Greenough also notes that she is starting to see more local traffic coming through her store since Port City Pottery opened in April of 2007. The merchants hope that Wilmingtonians continue to support local, independently operated businesses.
The Cotton Exchange opened its doors in 1975 as a renovated multipurpose complex holding retail shops, restaurants, and offices. The Exchange has twenty-seven retail stores, four restaurants and thirty-six executive office spaces, including Castle Branch, a background check business that currently employs 125 people. Castle Branch has grown since it moved to the Cotton Exchange and will be moving to a new building in the spring.

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