Downtown Burlington Retailers Grapple with Perception of Safety Amidst Challenges

Downtown Burlington Retailers Grapple with Perception of Safety Amidst Challenges

Concerns about safety and other challenges are impacting downtown Burlington’s retail sector, raising questions about the upcoming holiday shopping season.

As the holiday season approaches, downtown retailers in Burlington are bracing themselves for a crucial period that could make or break their businesses. While some store owners, like Mark Bouchett of Homeport, are feeling optimistic about the upcoming shopping season, others are grappling with the perception that downtown Burlington is no longer as appealing or safe as it once was. This perception, fueled by a surge in mental illness and substance use disorder on the city streets, is impacting foot traffic, sales, and the overall success of downtown retailers.

The Challenges of Perception:

Mark Bouchett, the owner of Homeport and chair of the commission overseeing the Church Street Marketplace, acknowledges that some retailers are struggling due to the perception of downtown Burlington being less safe. Bouchett believes this perception is rooted in reality, as signs of post-pandemic mental health and substance use issues have become more prevalent on the streets. However, he also asserts that these issues do not make downtown Burlington inherently unsafe for shoppers and diners.

The Impact on Retailers:

The perception of safety concerns, coupled with other challenges such as hiring difficulties, increased costs, and competition from big box stores and online retailers, is making it harder for downtown retailers to succeed. According to data from the Burlington Business Association, over 80% of city businesses have noticed a decrease in foot traffic, and more than 50% have experienced a decline in sales compared to the previous year. Additionally, half of the merchants have had staff members quit over concerns about public safety downtown.

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The Importance of the Holiday Shopping Season:

Given the reported slumps in foot traffic and sales, the holiday shopping season holds extra significance for downtown retailers. Many businesses rely on this period to generate a significant portion of their annual revenue. Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association, emphasizes that this holiday season could be make or break for struggling retailers who are already facing a challenging year.

Factors Contributing to the Perception:

While mental health and substance use issues contribute to the perception of downtown Burlington’s safety, other factors also play a role. Reduced business hours due to the pandemic and the absence of office workers who would typically shop in the area after work have resulted in emptier streets. Additionally, increasing rates of retail theft downtown have further eroded the sense of safety for both retailers and shoppers.

A Wider Context:

Retail theft is not unique to Burlington or Vermont. Business owners, like Todd Gross of Phoenix Books, argue that these issues are endemic to urban environments across the country. They believe that Burlington is not exempt from broader societal challenges and that news coverage of crime and violence downtown has contributed to the perception of the area being less safe than it actually is.

The Future of Downtown Burlington:

Recent reports of businesses closing in downtown Burlington have raised concerns about the vitality of the area. However, it is essential to note that new businesses are also opening, indicating that the retail landscape is evolving rather than deteriorating entirely. Burlington’s Director of Business and Workforce Development, Kara Alnasrawi, disagrees with the notion that public safety concerns are the primary driving force behind businesses leaving the city. She acknowledges the valid concerns but emphasizes the need to differentiate between discomfort and true safety and security issues.

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Downtown retailers in Burlington are facing a combination of challenges, including the perception of safety concerns, hiring difficulties, increased costs, and competition from larger retailers. As the holiday shopping season approaches, the success of downtown businesses hangs in the balance. While some retailers remain optimistic, others are concerned about the impact of the perception of safety on foot traffic and sales. As Burlington navigates these challenges, it is crucial to address the underlying issues while also highlighting the efforts being made to revitalize and support the downtown retail sector.