Merchants Measure Progress on Main Street

A rendering shows what Main Street is supposed to look like when the work is done. (From the Department of Public Works website)
A rendering shows what Main Street is supposed to look like when the work is done. (From the Department of Public Works website)

December came to Main Street, St. Thomas, and with it thousands of visitors. But merchants along the famous commercial strip say they’re not sure the resurgence of customers will be enough to ensure a successful winter tourist season.

Almost a month has passed since the Department of Public Works changed directions on the road project that brought anticipation and dread to Main Street.

Merchants at the western end of the strip, near Enid Baa Library, have largely closed for good since the federally funded Main Street Road Enhancement Project began three years ago. Under an accommodation set up between Government House and Main Street merchants, the work was to be done at night, with trenches closed and streets restored by 6 a.m., daily. Unhappy merchants complained nothing was being done. Gov. Kenneth Mapp complained of cost overruns and at one meeting spoke of making late night trips to the site to see for himself.

A few months later, a new contractor and a new plan were brought in. The street would close section by section and the work would proceed, full speed, in order to get all project features in place.

The result, deep trenches in the middle of the road, ringed by orange barriers; non-existent parking. A few intrepid pedestrians and children in school uniforms making their way through the melee.

With customer foot traffic largely killed off, Main Street west, was left with decorative sidewalks, eurocobble pavement in the road and shuttered jalousies with bars and padlocks.

One departing merchant, chatting with a fellow customer near Hibiscus Alley in November, said 16 store had closed. Larry Lawani at Ballerina Jewelers, at the opposite end of the strip, said there were more. Among those who left were store owners who first opened their doors 35 years ago.

But as the seasonal cruise ship scheduled ramped up in December, optimism – and foot traffic – flowed anew as Public Works contractors reopened sections of roadway that had been closed to vehicular traffic since August.

On a three-ship Tuesday, Jeannie Green at Mr. Tablecloth stood in the midst of the action as customers strolled through her doors. A self described mayor of Main Street, Green had been in business 42 years. At one time, she said, there were 30 stores up and down the strip selling linen table dressings with elaborate embroidery.

But now, she said, only Mr. Tablecloth remained. And while business appeared brisk for a three-ship morning, the scene had completely changed.

“If you had come here five years ago, you couldn’t come in here, you would be knocked over. But look at me now,” she said. Many of those coming in to browse were repeat customers, retirees who travel with different cruise lines.

“They love to come to say hello, a lot of them. I mean, how much can you buy?” she said.

Green’s store sits halfway along the strip. By October, masons were setting stones in place for sidewalks. Customers wishing to visit Mr. Tablecloth had to walk the plank – a wooden board bridging from roadway to doorway.

Green said she begged workers for a wider piece of board. Customers who want to visit will find a way, she said, but some came in with stories of taxi drivers telling them Main Street was too dangerous to visit.

“The taxi drivers were telling tourists it’s dangerous down there. They didn’t want to deal with it,” said the counter clerk at the Belgian Chocolate Factory, who asked for anonymity. “Since the cabs weren’t coming, we had a different flow of traffic.”

Visitors headed to the beach often have taxi drivers drop them off by Hibiscus Alley and the chocolate factory on their way back to the ship to buy hand-dipped bonbons. But now that roadwork had been put on pause the factory’s doors frequently swung open. And with the biggest local shopping night of the year coming up with Miracle on Main Street, the shopkeeper said shopper’s specials will fill the shelves.

“I hope it’s a good one. It’s been a very rough time for all of us, so I hope it will be good,” the chocolate clerk said.

Down Drakes Passage – the historic old town Charlotte Amalie – retired teacher Tulip Fleming told how rough it’s been for her and her cultural corner, Tropical Creations. Damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 left nasty surprises, like dripping ceilings, from time to time.

The hurricanes also closed St. Thomas hotels and wiped out her best customers.

“It’s the impact of two hurricanes. the hotels are still closed. It is truly more hotel guests that spend more. They take the time. The cruise ship passengers are hurried. They pop their heads in and decide if they have 15 minutes to spend in this store,” Fleming said.

Less than a stone’s throw away in the alley – the streets of old town are so narrow you can touch the walls in a wingspan – restaurateur Gladys Isles stepped out of the kitchen at lunchtime. Gladys’ Cafe began its life on the strip 26 years ago and moved to Drake’s Passage in 1995.

Accessible from Main St. to the north, the passage sits along a renovated section of roadway and sidewalk. As she welcomed a visitor, Isles showed off a newly renovated dining space, improved after the storms.

Taking the long view, she said she thought Public Works and its contractors were doing what they said they would. Impatience was taking merchants off the strip.

“I definitely see a change, but most of all the change is in the change of Main Street. It’s good to see that they stuck with it. It’s hard work – they’re laying stones,” she said.

“It’s a process that takes much more time. When everything is done, you’re happy. It’s beautiful,” she said.

Fleming said she’s decided she’ll be happier somewhere else. Hairdresser Phillip Sturm thought so, too. In 2013, he moved from the passage but he didn’t go far.

The new space – through the courtyard and up the steps in the historic Camille Pissarro Building – Sturm moved westward onto Main. Exposed brick walls and high ceilings give him plenty of room to display art deco paintings done by his mother. Swivel chairs and mirrors take a lower profile on the floor.

The phone keeps ringing on a Tuesday afternoon, and Sturm pulls out his appointment book and scribbles.

But the salon took a hit for a year, he said, with road work going on outside.

“My in-town customers, that lived in town, didn’t have a problem. It was the out-of-town customers who had a problem with parking,” Sturm said. “It’s OK now, but it’s only as OK as it seems.”

Regular customers of the 40-year-old business were now in their 70s and 80s. Those with health problems, needing hospital services no longer there, had to leave.

“Those who were on the fence, who didn’t know whether to go or to stay, the hurricane pushed them out,” he said.

As one for whom aesthetics count, his view of Main Street’s road enhancements is positive.

“If the owners and the tenants go along with the Historic Preservation Commission, we will have a lovely town. If they stop with the signs, and too much signs, and the barkers, and all the things that have been going on for years. Greed and avarice reign supreme,” he said.

Back at Mr Tablecloth, Green said more foot traffic, a lot more, is needed in order to save the 2018 winter tourist season.

“We’re all waiting for after Christmas. That’s when a lot of these stores are going to find out if things are going to pick up or if Main Street’s gonna sink,” she said.