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St. Helens' small businesses ride a tricky markets ups and downs

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Employees at the Houlton Bakery in St. Helens prepare the bakery for another day March 12. Owner Gainor Riker has decided to close the bakery. Its last day is March 23.St. Helens experienced a rash of business closures last year and is about to go through another round.

At the same time, Olde Towne business owners have formed a merchant’s association, meeting regularly and working together to promote and compliment the commercial district. Also, the St. Helens Economic Development Corporation has become a more visible presence, working with landlords to market empty storefronts and offering small businesses a variety of services, classes and resources.

“It’s a very unstable market,” said Gainor Riker, owner of Houlton Bakery, trying to explain the back-and-forth swing. She plans to close the doors to her bakery March 23 and is already neighbor to another empty storefront, the former St. Helens Book Store.

The chief reason for Houlton Bakery’s closure is an inflexible landlord, Riker said. Hoping to expand what her business could offer without adding yet another labor-intensive process, Riker planned to apply for a liquor license so she could serve beer and wine to her customers. Her landlord was not on board with the liquor license, however, unless she signed a three-year contract, Riker said.

Riker had run the bakery from its location on Columbia Boulevard for more than nine years and had recently been paying rent on a month-to-month basis. While a lease can give both a landlord and a tenant some measure of security, it can also be an invitation to debt, she said.

“A lease doesn’t guarantee anything,” Riker explained. “You can still fold. You can still go out of business.”

She says she tries to take on as little debt as possible, citing both her age — does she have enough remaining business years to pay off major debt? — and her desire to always be able to pay her employees and provide quality products. She felt the landlord’s demand was “being used as a way to keep me in the building.”

“I really felt like, under my current business plan, I could only produce so much,” she said. “I couldn’t change my situation to pay higher rent, but they said you have to sign a lease if you want to grow and change your business model.

“If I stayed there under those terms, I would ultimately go out of business.”

Businesses close for many reasons in St. Helens.

The Hawaiian Island Cafe in Olde Towne St. Helens closed after the owners and employees were locked out of the building by the landlord. They had fallen behind on payments. Community members say it was owner Al Tumlinson who had kept the business tied together. When he died last summer, his family struggled to keep the restaurant and catering company afloat. Right around the corner, the Plantation House simply announced its closure to employees one day last fall.

Olde Towne mainstays like Grace’s Rivertown Antiques, Fritz & Sassy and specialty boutique Jilly’s don’t appear to be going anywhere, but other antique, thrift and specialty stores routinely rise and fall along St. Helens’ commercial streets.

Empty store fronts are obvious despite artwork on display in the windows, and dining options have shrunk. By the end of the month, St. Helens will have lost Houlton Bakery, its only remaining bakery besides what is available at larger grocery chains, as well as one of the few sit-down coffee and espresso shops in the area besides Starbucks; the Fresh Start coffee shop will close its location off Highway 30 on March 15.

For Fresh Start, which will continue to operate its drive-through stand farther down the highway, the breaking point was overhead costs.

“We tried to negotiate and all that,” said co-owner Tammy Cooper.

Riker and other business owners realize landlords need to make a profit as well, and many landlords have said that while they are frustrated they can’t draw from a richer pool of tenants, they’d rather just have a tenant — any tenant.

For the businesses that are still thriving, the closures can be complex.

“The more storefronts we have full down here the better everybody’s going to do,” said Dave Wuollet, owner and head chef at the Klondike restaurant, an old yellow house on Cowlitz Street, whose windows provide a view of the Plantation House’s empty dining room across the street.

At the same time, the closures have made the Klondike and the nearby Dockside restaurant busier than ever. Wuollet has already increased staff hours up from the usual decrease that winter’s slower days require, and hired several new people — hires he typically wouldn’t make until summer hits and he opens the outdoor patio.

The restaurant owners are also negotiating with a real estate underwriting company currently in charge of the Plantation House’s empty location for the option of leasing that spot. If he is successful, Wuollet hopes to open a pizza place.

It took several months following the closures for the Klondike and Dockside to see increased business and it still depends on the day. Mondays at the Klondike are still slow, for instance, Wuollet said.

But, he added, “There are two less restaurants available down here for dinner, and we have seen the results of that.”