CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) — If you ask people what they love about Charleston, they will probably tell you the food, the history, and the shopping — all things that make Charleston special.
But living and working in the city is now coming with a hefty price tag, especially for local business owners hoping for space on King Street in downtown Charleston.
King Street draws millions of people to the city each year by offering a variety of retailers and restaurants in one place.
While some people choose to stop by stores they are familiar with while visiting King Street, others look to shop at ones that can only be found in Charleston.
“The whole idea is to walk the streets and to get a flavor of the local stores and all the stuff that they have to offer,” said Debbie Cohen, who was visiting from Chicago.
Cohen said she was hooked after seeing the unique features Charleston had to offer like the architecture, local art, and independent clothing stores. She said she even looked at what a property would cost and noticed the sky-high prices.
“We are not getting a second home,” she laughed.
The prices aren’t just turning away people who want to live in Charleston. Some local business owners are dealing with it as well when it comes to setting up shop on King Street.
Jessica Nicoles, who owns bag shop J. Stark, said they felt the sticker shock when moving to their current location on upper King Street in March of 2020 from a different spot in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood.
“The places we were looking at were like astronomically priced,” she said. “Places that were like five and six times what we were already paying.”
According to a local commercial real estate broker, a 1,500 square-foot retail space in a high-foot traffic area can cost between $8,000 and $10,500 per month on average.
Nicoles said they eventually found a spot and their landlord worked with them through the pandemic.
But, that wasn’t the case for everyone. Another hurdle some local business owners face is landlords can be hesitant to work with them.
“It definitely took some convincing of our landlord to get this spot that we have on King Street — he was considering a lot of national retailers,” said Adam Fetsch, the owner of CandleFish. “I think our proven success in another location helped give him the confidence that we could take over this spot. But it’s tough to be taken seriously as an independent retailer I think with some of the landlords.”
Now as some local business owners face these uphill battles, they are being forced off of King Street. And in some cases, making way for national retailers to take their spots.
According to data from the City of Charleston, 29% of businesses on King Street are national, while 55% are local as of Sept. 2023. The percentage of local businesses has decreased slightly from 2022, and groups like Lowcountry Local First are trying to ensure that number doesn’t fall even lower.
“In order to keep King Street and the Lowcountry unique and vibrant — it just can’t be left up to sheer market forces,” said Jacquie Berger, the Executive Director of Lowcountry Local First. “Because if it’s going to be whoever is the highest bidder wins then gradually we are going to see only international chains and national chains and really see the little guys squeezed out.”
Berger said the goal of Lowcountry Local First is to support upcoming and existing local businesses in the region to help set Charleston apart from other cities.
“From advice that we can give but also helping them network and connect to each other,” she said. “So if a member business needs marketing support or legal support or looking to open a place a King Street, we’re here to provide resources and support to help them do that.”
While business owners agree that a mixture of local, regional, national, and international businesses is important for King Street, Nicoles said the local spots offer something to the area that not everyone can.
“You feel something deep and intrinsic when you give someone something that was made by someone’s hand in the town you’re living in,” she said. “And you can see those people’s kids out on the street and you can be like I fed that kid!”
Berger said to support local businesses, you can shop at local retailers this holiday season. Lowcountry Local First also has a list of more than 400 local independent businesses that you can support throughout the area.