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Living Through Construction

Business owners deal with short-term losses, look for long-term gains.

The opening of three new anchor stores at Mount Vernon Plaza has made big news, but what about the smaller operations — those business owners who have been a part of Mount Vernon Plaza and South Valley Shopping Center for years. How are they faring?

At Sun Sew Vac, Robert Hines is still selling vacuum cleaners and sewing machines, but he estimates that his parts and repair business has been off by 30 percent for the past few months. K.J. Park, owner of Mount Vernon Jewelers, has the opposite problem — his repair business is doing fine, but his retail sales have been slow. Mia Yoo, owner of South Valley Cleaners, said that her business was so slow that she wasn’t able to pay the rent in August and asked the landlord to spread the monthly payment over the next four months.

These owners have suffered losses because of the construction being done to complete the renovation of Mount Vernon Plaza. Yet, already Park can see the upside. With all the façade work completed on his side of the shopping center, he’s seeing sales pick up. He’s also finding that customers who never knew he was there are now noticing him.

“They were surprised to find that I was here,” Park said. “It tells me that people will take notice of other shops. Before people used to go in and out and not venture past the post office.”

While the other side of the center is not yet completed, Hines said, “I think it’s going to be good. It’s going to class up Route 1. People haven’t wanted to come in because of the access, but now it will be much better.”

Hines, Yoo and Park are all long-time tenants. Hines opened his store Nov. 5, 1975, but he actually made his first dollar when a customer came in during construction; he sold a belt to her for a dollar Oct. 21, 1975. He now has that, and other first dollars, framed.

Sun Sew Vac was originally located next to the CVS. When they rebuilt the other side of the shopping center, he moved to the location next to K-Mart. Five years ago he moved to his current location, which fronts Richmond Highway.

“This is our third and hopefully last move,” he said.

THIS AREA of the shopping center is one of the last to have its façade work done, and while it’s scheduled to be completed next week, Hines doesn’t feel confident that will be the case. Business owners do not pay for this façade work. Emily Groome, development manager with Federal Realty Investment Trust, said that the redevelopment is the cost that Federal Realty incurs.

“We hope that stores will get more customers and make more money,” she said.

Groome also said that all of the spaces in the original Mount Vernon Plaza have been leased and that they are working through leasing strategies with some of the South Valley Plaza properties.

Hines has asked for more space and is hoping to get a small piece of the adjacent property but understands that Federal Realty is waiting to see who will occupy the space formerly occupied by Torrie’s Restaurant.

Hines is planning a 30-year celebration through the end of the year, and aims to have a sale with giveaways and other promotional events.

In the 20 years that Yoo has owned South Valley Cleaners, she has seen a number of businesses come and go. She said that she’s happy to stay here, but will be glad when the construction is complete.

“We lost business, but hope it will come back,” she said. “Parking has been a problem and all the dust — customers have been worried about their clean clothes.”

Park has been in the shopping center for 25 years — originally in a space on the other side of CVS and now in his current location closer to the anchor stores.

He said that the last two months of construction were particularly tough because when they fenced off the parking lot it was hard for people to get in and out.

He said that things could be better but isn’t sure how much his business is affected by the economy and rising gasoline prices.

“I think this will revitalize the area,” he said.

MAUREEN RAYMAN has a different perspective from her fellow business owners. She and her husband, the owners of Aquatic Adventures, have only been tenants at South Valley Shopping Center since April 2004.

“We knew they were going to develop and wanted to get in on the ground floor,” she said.

She agrees that dealing with the construction has been hard; “It’s been tough for everybody.”

They like their new space because it has better visibility and parking than where they were before, off N. Kings Highway.

“From a retail point of view, you can see the whole store,” she said. “I think it’s good and we have to be patient and stick it out for the long haul. Federal Realty has been very good about staying on schedule and minimizing the downtime.”

Aquatic Adventures is not only a retail store, but a scuba academy as well. They offer a range of scuba and aquatic classes. Rayman feels that it has helped her business being near Home Depot, but is not sure how much it will help them to be located near PETsMART, Michaels and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

“That remains to be seen — it does bring more people to the back of the shopping center,” Rayman said. “We’re happy overall and business is slowly increasing.”

Aquatic Adventures is located in the back strip with China One, Radio Shack and a dental office. Radio Shack is scheduled to move to the center retail strip. Jesus Bookstore, which once occupied the space where Aquatic Adventures is, has already moved to a new space on the other side of the shopping center.

ANOTHER NEWCOMER to the plaza is Wachovia. The bank occupies the space in the center of the shopping center where Roy Roger’s was formerly located.

In the new center retail space, also known as the “pad,” Five Below is scheduled to open Friday, Oct. 28. Five Below is a a discount accessories store, which will offer trendy products for teens and pre-teens, within the price range of $1 to $5. Its grand-opening celebration is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 4.

Following close behind is another location of Starbucks. Two other food establishments, Shane’s Rib Shack and Moe’s Southwest Grill, will open sometime in the future.

Other tenants which will be opening at the plaza include: Carter’s Kids, Cold Stone Creamery, England Custom Furniture, Fort Belvoir Credit Union, Happy Nails Day Spa, Hour Eyes, Just Fresh, Knowledge Points, Nextel, Olly Shoes and Virginia ABC.

“Mount Vernon Plaza is looking great and Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation is pleased with the quality tenants Federal Realty is bringing in,” said Lara VandeWalle-Fritts, SFDC executive director. “To date, all but two spaces have been leased, and those spaces have had significant interest.”

Groome said that Federal Realty has hired a security company which patrols the parking lot on a daily and nightly basis. She also said that the site is very well-lit now and that, in and of itself, is the biggest security improvement. Groome said that as the project comes online, they will re-evaluate the security needs.