In the aftermath of the 1996 Olympics, many small businesses in Atlanta are concerned about the future.
On The Road
ATLANTA--For Pierce Pape, the economic legacy of the Olympics is measured out in bagels. Behind the wooden counter of Highland Bagel, Pape relies on a daily scoreboard to keep count. Bagels go over the counter, money comes back, and Pape watches anxiously, tracking the long-term effect of the games that came and went last summer.
Pape, president of Highland Bagel, opened the shop in downtown Atlanta's Fairlie-Poplar district just hours before the Olympics began. During the games the store had no problem drawing a crowd. Pape didn't expect the 17-day surge to last, but he did hope that the huge event would jump-start the ailing area. After all, the games followed on the heels of a four-year public-private partnership that guided millions of dollars into neighborhood improvements, including apartment renovations, three spiffed-up hotels, and a refurbished theater for Georgia State University's music department. The Olympics, it seemed, would put Fairlie-Poplar over the top. "We came here because we thought there was a community to serve," Pape says. Now he's not so sure.
Pape's exact circumstances may be unique, but his quandary is hardly unfamiliar: any entrepreneur who has experienced the thrill of having a business suddenly take off knows the anxiety of what happens afterward. Just ask the owner of that Cajun restaurant you frequent-- or has it already switched to pasta? Few businesses are immune to fashion, and the real test for folks like Pape may come after the crowds have thinned. Watching the numbers fall, he's left to wonder, How far down will they go?
Pape was not alone in hoping the receding Olympic tidal wave would leave a changed landscape. "At lunch we've got a pretty good line. After 4, we're pretty slow," says Jim Boyle, manager of Murphy's Deli, which also opened just in time for the games.
Gail Collins, manager of the Fairlie-Poplar Implementation Task Force, urges the entrepreneurs not to expect too much. "A lot of the improvements that happened, happened faster than they would have without the Olympics," she says. But if progress doesn't continue, the "For Lease" signs--not exactly rare now--will proliferate.
The failures hint at the darker problems of rebuilding any downtown neighborhood. For instance, Planet Smoothie, a two-year-old 25-store chain that sells healthful shakes and snacks, closed its nearby shop just weeks after the Olympic flame was doused. Company president Martin Sprock says the store was plagued by crime, including an incident in which a manager chased down a thief and was badly bitten. Smoothie had dropped $50,000 on renovations, and some investors argued for staying to recoup. Not Sprock. "I think Fairlie-Poplar has at least several years before it really recovers," he says.
Most of the area's entrepreneurs are working hard to find the right niche. The Peachtree Guitar Co. hopes to draw Georgia State music students. Tribeca, a clothing store, is aiming for slightly more upscale customers, a mix of tourists and office workers. Meanwhile, the Arts Festival of Atlanta will move next fall to Fairlie-Poplar--yet another wave of humanity to whet entrepreneurial hopes.
For his part, all Pierce Pape can do is scope out customers for clues. Are they neighborhood folk or regular office workers--repeat customers that he'll need to survive? "People say, 'I hope you make it," he reports. So, of course, does he. "We're not there yet," he notes. "But I think we're rounding third and headed for home."
Resources: FAIRLIE-POPLAR IMPLEMENTATION TASK FORCE, Gail Collins, 50 Hurt Plaza, Grand Lobby, Atlanta, GA 30303; 404-658-1877