NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Should Fermental, Tame the Mane, and A-Atlantic Coast Lock all close within the next year, it won’t be for a lack of customers. It won’t even be caused by the pandemic, which has shuttered small businesses across the world.
Instead, it will be due to an inability to secure a large amount of capital in a short period of time, as larger commercial operations swallow up valuable land in the growing Ogden area.
The small business owners see their impending potential closures to make way for a chain development as a microcosm for what’s happening in Ogden, marking a pattern of buildings and businesses with character getting torn down to make way for bigger money and projects.
Small business vs. bigger business
Affiliates of Take 5 Oil Change, a national chain with more than 500 locations, have purchased at least one small Market Street-facing parcel currently home to Tame the Mane, a small barbershop. In August, the company offered the owner of property next door that hosts the locksmith and Fermental more than twice its county-appraised value.
Steve Gibbs, Fermental’s owner, thought to include a “first right of refusal” clause when he last renewed his lease with the property’s landlord, which recently triggered the required paperwork that allows him the opportuity to beat the $850,000 offer price.
After visiting two banks with little promise, Gibbs now has 10 business days to find a hail Mary investment solution.
“They just offered a dollar amount that is pretty difficult to beat and very difficult for the owner to turn down. And what they’re putting here is not very exciting — it’s an oil change,” Gibbs said.
“I’m not against people buying property — it’s their business, that’s what they do,” he added.
If no creative investment option presents itself before Oct. 7, Fermental, one of the region’s first craft bottle shops, can operate until Jan. 2022, per Gibbs’ lease agreement.
Next door at Tame the Mane, owner Nathan Patel said he’s now operating on a month-to-month lease with his landlord, unsure of when exactly he’ll have to close down the business for good. “We’re all pretty bummed,” he said.
His property sold in July to the same buyers for nearly double its tax value, he said. “It’s kind of impossible for us to get a traditional loan from a bank for that offer because we can’t compete,” he said. “The land isn’t even worth that.”
Though the floors creak and things need fixing, Patel said that’s part of the charm of the 1940s building.
“All the little bungalow-style places like we have here are all kind of getting eaten up by developers. Which is really sad because to me, they’re the coolest part,” he said.
Fermental’s backyard, homey feel is part of its allure. “There’s other places, but they don’t have the same ambiance,” shop regular Jay Tarrer said.
Allan Nance, another regular, said he stops in every other day. “It’s an institution now. There’s no other place in this town like this. This is ‘Cheers,'” he said.
Since learning in August (the day before the shop reopened to bar service and allow customers back on-site since March) that the property could get purchased, Gibbs has been looking for other spaces.
He doesn’t want a strip center spot; he’d prefer a standalone. People have pointed him to Liberty Tavern, one of Odgen’s other few older buildings with oaks surrounding it, but that’s way out of his price range.
“There’s nothing like this on the market that could mimic this,” he said of Fermental’s 1950s bungalow. “When we first opened a lot of people said we wouldn’t make it in this old house on this little corner.”
Gibbs points to the tear-down of the old Wahoo Willies/Jones’ Fish Camp to make way for Amberleigh Shores II, or a new area car wash that now pours flourescent lights into his friend’s backyard. “Coming soon” signs pop up every month, with properties getting scooped up before neighbors realize.
“There’s more happening that you can’t see yet,” he said. “As much as everybody likes Denny’s, it’s not really what Odgen wanted.”
Clark Henry, a planning consultant and founder of Our Ogden, an organization for locals who want to keep an eye on development in the region, said the issue is both a function of small businesses’ inadequate access to capital and buyers purchasing land for more than it’s worth from a traditional valuation perspective. When this happens, the small businesses just can’t compete, Henry said.
“By the time you see the big changes happenings, it means there’s been years of things happening but you just haven’t seen a big indicator yet,” he said.
Henry is working to campaign for neighborhood-based planning with a vision, requiring public-private coordination. “Right now, the way things are being built is haphazard,” he said. “So it’s just up to a relatively disconnected network of development interests to identify parcels for opportunities rather than a space or area created to create a compelling sense of place.”
In the future, Clark hopes New Hanover County will acknowledge and study specific visions for the Ogden community, which he said is generally lacking in the Comprehensive Plan.
“It’s hard to go back once a place is built out and say, ‘Oh we wanted it to be a different form or function or operate differently.’ While things are evolving is the time to do that — to try and do something with intention rather than it being haphazard.”
Watching Odgen grow over the last eight years has brought Gibbs new customers, which he appreciates, but it’s also intensified traffic headaches and stormwater issues. Though he said he’s outgrown the shop, he’d rather stay crammed in the bungalow.
Now faced with the possible closure of his business, Gibbs said he knows a lot about beer and wine, but not a lot about real estate or development interests.
“How local can stand up to that kind of stuff is out of my reach,” he said.
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