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Store Closures Shock Main Street, Spur Calls for Renewal

Closures of two long-time Charlotte Amalie retail outlets have set off cries from community leaders to get on with stalled revitalization efforts and save the downtown shopping district.

Colombian Emeralds has closed both its downtown stores and the one it had at Havensight Mall. Attempts to reach company representatives for comment Thursday were unsuccessful. (Colombian Emeralds reps contacted the Source on Friday. See Related Links below)

Boolchands closed its downtown store about three weeks ago, but is still operating by the cruise ship dock at Havensight Mall. Deepak Sharma, the store manager, said electronic and other products are being transferred from the Main Street store to the mall outlet.

The Main Street store will be renovated. It will remain under Boolchands ownership, Sharma said, but will become a “different concept” offering a different product. Most likely, it will be a Pandora store, selling jewelry. He expects the transition to be complete by the first week of June.

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“I was totally surprised,” by the Colombian Emerald closing, said Joe Aubain, executive director of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce. “This is the first time you see storefronts (on Main Street) closed.”

“There are a lot of reasons that there is stagnation downtown,” Aubain said. Among them is the failure of the community to upgrade the area and to eliminate congestion, noise and the hectic atmosphere promoted by street hawkers.

“The face of retail has changed nationally too,” he said, referencing the popularity of online shopping.

“If you look at the last several years in downtown retail, what you’ll see is a consolidation of businesses,” Aubain said. Many well known brands have two or more different stores in the shopping district. “We need to attract new and diversified businesses.”

At the same time, he said, “Obviously jewelry still sells in a big enough way to keep 30 to 40 stores going.”

Several people put the blame primarily on the lack of renovation, including Steve Morton, manager with Topa Properties, which leases many of the stores in the commercial district.

Plans have been in the works for years to overhaul the area, but so far, the only major work was at the west end of Main Street at Market Square.

“It’s really, really disappointing that we can’t seem to get this project started and finished,” Morton said. “We’re past the point where the downtown needed a facelift … Like any product, you’ve got to refresh it.”

For Morton, “The writing’s on the wall and has been for years.” Since the mid 1980s, when viable concerns overflowed in alleyways, into Back Street, and in every nook and cranny along the Waterfront, “I’ve seen downtown shrink,” he said. There are about half the number of stores there used to be. “All it takes is a walk to see.”

Etienne Bertrand, manager with Lockhart Properties, landlord to Colombian Emeralds downtown, said retailers are nervous about the uncertainty of two related projects, the revitalization of Main Street and the widening and beautification of the waterfront.

“The tenants are responding to the apprehension of not knowing,” he said. “I think as soon as there’s a strong signal about revitalization, people will be happier. People will start to believe it when they see it.”

In the specific case of Colombian Emeralds, Bertrand said, “They would probably have felt better if they had seen some active activity.” But they have to assess how well their St. Thomas stores are doing in comparison with those on other islands.

Bertrand declined to discuss specifics of the Colombian Emeralds lease situation, but said, “All our tenants have a right to refer somebody to us” to take over an unexpired lease “and we’re in that mode.“ Lockhart can accept or reject a new tenant. “We’ll work with them as best we can.”

Messages left on the answering machine at the company’s Havensight store and with a receptionist at the corporate office in Florida were not returned Thursday. (Colombian Emeralds reps contacted the Source on Friday. See Related Links below)

David Bornn, president of Downtown Revitalization Inc., put out a call Thursday, urging residents to attend a DRI meeting at 8:30 a.m. May 23, at the Charlotte Amalie High School auditorium.

“The recent closure of Boolchands Store, an icon retailer on Main Street since 1975, is not a warning shot; it is a clear indicator that an energetic effort has to be made to advance the mission of Downtown Revitalization Inc.,” he wrote.

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