CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) — There are questions about Charleston losing its image of a unique charming town as some local businesses are priced out of King Street and national companies take their place. While some say Charleston’s charm is long gone, others think there is hope and solutions to prevent it from fading away.
Two local retailers shared their experiences of moving into a retail space on King Street and their struggles with affordability and landlords with News 2. Now, Charleston city leaders are addressing what the situation looks like on their end.
Robert Summerfield, the city’s Director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, said they have been tracking the number of local, regional, and national businesses on King Street, and how they compare to each other.
“Right now we think in our business services group that we do have a healthy mix,” he said.
However, as millions of people visit Charleston each year and King Street grows in popularity, Summerfield said it’s something they have to keep monitoring.
“As it [King Street] becomes more desirable that interest from other areas of the country to be on King Street and have that presence that goes up,” he explained. “So that can have a negative effect on opportunities for our local retailers.”
According to the latest data from the city, 55% of businesses on King Street from Line to Broad Streets are local. 29% are national and 16% are regional. Summerfield said this is on the lower end of what they like to see for local businesses.
In its profile, city leaders break up King Street into three sections: Line to Calhoun Streets (Upper King), Calhoun to Market Streets (Middle King), and Market to Broad Streets (Lower King). In the Sept. 2023 report, Upper and Lower King had a higher percentage of local businesses. Middle King was the only area with a higher number of national businesses.
Local business owners said one reason for this may be the price. One real estate broker told News 2 that a 15,000-square-foot space in high-foot traffic areas can cost up to $10,500 a month. A price that not all small, local vendors can afford.
“Nobody’s like looking out for us to be in that space,” said Jessica Nicoles, owner of J. Stark. “It’s strictly like how can we make the most amount of money with this one tiny plot of land.”
Nicoles added that there is not much support for business owners in terms of help. When asked if the city has any lifelines for business owners who are struggling with rent prices or to keep their space, Summerfield said there are not any direct financial resources available.
“But what we do have is the ability to connect them with other non-profits and/or county or maybe even state resources that may be able to assist them with addressing that concern,” he added.
Summerfield also mentioned the possibility of looking into changes the city can make to its development code.
“To get some kind of development offset if they provide some level of affordability for their commercial space,” he explained.
Lowcountry Local First is a non-profit supporting business owners in the Lowcountry through these challenges. Executive Director Jacquie Berger said there are also measures landlords can take.
“Create incentives and support and provide opportunities to local independent businesses,” she offered.
Berger also recommended that Charleston look to other areas that have been successful in maintaining a strong local presence.
“There are some innovative practices that are happening in other parts of the country in terms of community-supported commercial space,” she said. “So it would be great to see some more of those things.”
Summerfield said there are similar efforts underway in the city as a part of their entrepreneurial resource center. He said the city is working on creating retail spaces that they could provide to help a business get started downtown.
Business owners said that’s all they are asking for — small steps that can move the needle toward protecting what gives Charleston its charm.
“I just think you start small, you make a little divot and the divot becomes a hole,” said Nicoles.
Lowcountry Local First said the best way to support local retailers is by shopping local this holiday season and using local businesses as much as possible. The organization offers a list of hundreds of partners that are independent and locally owned.