Growing pains

Local business owners weather shifting landscape

Posted 7/26/23

HONESDALE, PA — Jim Hamill was recently hanging out with some friends at Here & Now Brewing Co. on Main Street. The borough councilor was sipping locally brewed beer and playing pool in the …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Growing pains

Local business owners weather shifting landscape


HONESDALE, PA — Jim Hamill was recently hanging out with some friends at Here & Now Brewing Co. on Main Street. The borough councilor was sipping locally brewed beer and playing pool in the backroom when he had a realization. He was the only Honsedale native of the bunch. Everyone else in his company who now calls the town home grew up somewhere else.

More than just fresh faces, things are changing in Honesdale.

Right next door from Hamill and his newcomer buddies, a four-store stretch of property—627 Main St.—just got a new coat of paint. The building owner—an investor from New York City—is renovating inside as well. He said he should be ready to rent out 15 upstairs apartment spaces sometime this fall.

With a new bluish-gray facade, the century-and-a-half-old building looks sleek and modern and stands out as such among its aging downtown neighbors. 

There’s just one problem: Most of the newly facelifted storefronts are sitting vacant. The local businesses there have either sought lower rent prices elsewhere or closed up shop indefinitely.

The story is much the same at different buildings up and down Main Street: new landlords, expensive renovations, higher rent prices, empty storefronts.

So, what’s going on here?

Talk to some local shop owners and you’ll probably hear roughly the same answer.

“I think what’s happening is there are landlords who are not from this area, who don’t understand the economy of the area here,” said Dave Figura, who owns Dnf Brass & Woodwind Repair. “When you own your own business, people think you’re rich. Well, most are not. Most are doing it because they love it, even though they could be making more money at a 9-to-5 job.”

Figura has been fixing instruments and teaching lessons at 627-2 Main St. for years. 

But since the building was purchased, Figura decided to give up the prominent storefront location—rather than pay a higher rent to stay there—and move next door into a less conspicuous space behind another business. He added that with less visibility, he’ll have to find new ways to advertise. But at least this way, his rent will only increase by $100 per month. If it were any higher, he’d just run the business from home.

Other local shops have seen their buildings change owners too.

Right before Thanksgiving of last year, Paul Bas had to move his business, Ambeez Toy Box, after spending years at 825 Main St. 

“I own a toy and candy store,” Bas said. “November is a busy time of year for me to have to uproot.”

When the building was sold, Bas got a new landlord who told him that he was paying too little in rent—despite the fact that Bas was footing the bill for the entire building’s water and heat himself. The two worked through their differences for a little while, but when Bas’s rent doubled, he decided it was time to move.

“I’m in business. I know increases happen, but there were no modifications to the space. There wasn’t anything he brought to the table except, ‘Hi I’m your new landlord and your rent is too cheap,’” Bas said. “As opposed to coming to the community and integrating and acclimating, they’re trying to force the community and they’re alienating the community.”

The River Reporter reached out to Bas’s former landlord, who was out of the country at the time and unavailable to comment. 

The owner at 627 Main St. did respond to questions, though he asked that his name not be printed. He said it’s “realistic” that rent prices will increase, given his renovations and the potential for increased foot traffic with new apartments.

“Why would I put a crazy rent and have the building be empty?” he said. “That’s the whole purpose of the investment.”

Some of his commercial properties are already listed online: the 2,400-square-foot former site of Primo Pizza is listed at $3,000 per month; the neighboring 880-square-foot-space is listed at $1,500 per month; and a 2,000 square-foot basement area is listed at $2,000 per month.

The properties are also being advertised on Facebook. The feedback has been mostly negative:

“Good luck with the rent prices you charge [you’re] better off going back to the city!” one comment reads. “Remember this is a small town and we know what you did to Primos and the other businesses!”

The owner told the River Reporter that he’s open to negotiating with prospective tenants—“If you’ll work with me, I’ll work with you”—and said he isn’t sure why he’s stirred an icy response from locals.

“Some people just don’t appreciate the changes… I don’t understand why is there so much hate. People should appreciate that there is something new coming,” he said. “People are afraid of change. People want everything to stay the same. You can’t live in the 1900s when it’s the 21st century. You got to move with the economy… It’s a different world.”

RR photo by Jeff Sidle
RR photo by Jeff Sidle

Big city meets small town

Just about a year ago, when Heather Shaeffer and Keenan Gruver decided to move out of Philadelphia and open up a bookstore in downtown Honesdale, past “trauma” as tenants with “predatory” building owners in the city had taught them a thing or two about renters’ rights.

The two lived in a Philly apartment complex plagued with “nonexistent management,” trash piled up outside, rats, insufficient heating and electricity and a seemingly unending list of other problems. For a while, they had accepted these issues as unfortunate realities of living somewhere affordable in a large metropolis. But when the kitchen cabinet fell off the wall as Gruver tried to open it, they decided things had gotten out of hand.

That event, and the lack of communication from building management that followed, inspired them to start holding meetings with other tenants in the building to discuss as neighbors the shoddy conditions they were dealing with. Shaeffer and Gruver eventually elected to withhold their rent payments until they were informed who specifically owned the building they were living in. That went on for about four months.

So, when they chose to rent 627-4 Main St. for Known Grove Books and More, they weren’t going to sign anything that made them uneasy.

“We learned to write really airtight, good leases,” Gruver said.  

Shaeffer later clarified it's still a learning process.

"I’m also not sure we 'learned' how to write airtight leases as much as we’re still learning. When writing our lease, I read our proposed lease, I read a bunch of blank basic commercial leases (available free online), talked to a commercial real estate agent, and spoke to my friend in law school about wording to make sure I was using more of the right language to protect both parties. It’s not perfect by any means but we’re definitely learning how to negotiate leases and to pay attention to the rules and laws in place that protect us," she said. "I think leases should be treated as the contracts they are. They’re meant to protect and benefit both the landlord and the tenant, and when one party isn’t holding up on their end, consequences are allowed. That’s why reading the fine print is necessary—and rewriting things when they’re unreasonable or just don’t fit one’s needs."

As they’ve become integrated in the downtown business community, Shaeffer said it’s been shocking to see that many shopowners aren’t aware of their rights as tenants. Many even feel that it’s their responsibility—not the property owner’s—to pay for fixes when amenities in the building stop working. 

“The thing is out here a lot of people do handshake deals and trust people on their word,” Gruver said. “And I think it’s a lack of resources in the area; people weren’t aware they have these rights or these protections.”

The two have talked with local leaders about forming some kind of tenant organization that provides renters with education “so people can start building up defenses against this more urbanized kind of way of doing business.”

“In the meantime, before there’s an official association, the important thing is just making sure you’re talking to the other renters in your building,” Shaeffer said. “That was the big thing that formed any kind of change in Philadelphia.”

What does higher rent mean for Honesdale?

The answer is complicated, said Mary Beth Wood, executive director of Wayne Economic Development Corporation (WEDCO). Rent is more expensive, but so are many things right now.

“We certainly have rising construction costs, so if you are purchasing a building and renovating, you’re going to have escalated constructions costs, renovation costs, inflation, the disruption in the supply chain is very real,” she said. “We would expect that there would be some rises in your rental rates based on these economic pressures.”

On top of these ubiquitous influences, Honesdale has been finding its place “on the map” as a destination for young professionals looking to get away from the pressures of life in big cities like Philly and New York City. The COVID-19 pandemic has only fueled this trend.

“Since COVID, our residential home prices increased anywhere from 25 up to 40 percent, just from the demand of buyers who came in from the metro area,” said Tim Meagher, a Honesdale-based real estate broker. “That crosses over into the commercial sector because those people who are purchasing residential properties end up also wanting to start businesses on Main Street.”

Hamill, who chairs the borough’s economic development committee, calls this time a renaissance for Honesdale, one “that brings with it quite a bit of change for people.”

These changes weren’t an accident. For years, it’s been a concerted effort by groups like WEDCO, the Greater Honesdale Partnership (GHP) and Wayne Tomorrow! to attract visitors, residents and businesses to the area, and in general, “turn Honedale into the premier downtown in the region.” 

In 2021, the GHP worked with a consultant to lay out visions and recommendations for revitalizing the downtown streetscape. In 2022, Honesdale earned a designation from PA Department of Community and Economic Development as a Keystone Communities Main Street, which opens the community up to more grant-funding opportunities.

In a sense, the fact that investors from outside the area are taking a tangible interest in Honesdale could be seen as a sign that these local groups’ years of hard work are paying off. While pursuing this development, however, it’s also the job of groups like WEDCO and GHP to “programmatically assist local businesses that find that it is to going to be difficult to stay in the game downtown,” Wood said. She said they’re currently working with the borough and GHP to determine what programs to pursue.

“The desired goal is to create a downtown where investment makes a lot of sense, because there is a return on that investment,” Hamill said. “Maybe this period provides an opportunity, as rents shift, for people to adapt as entrepreneurs and come out stronger.”

The potential for diverse use of downtown space—having apartments and stores in the same buildings—is promising too, said mayor Derek Williams, who’s long been an advocate of mixed-used development.

“The more we can maximize that space by getting a mix of uses in there, the easier it will be for people to use that space,” he said. “People will at least have the opportunity to live, work and play all within a few blocks of each other.”

The conversation about rent prices, Williams said, is only the beginning of a deeper conversation about the need for affordable housing in Honesdale and Wayne County at large.

“I’m glad to just be talking about this stuff now… Ideally, we can get people on board to realize we need more housing around here, and we need to have a certain chunk of it at price points A, B and C,” he said. “Then when we do have development that’s interested in building something here, we can get people turning out in support, rather than turning out against.”

honesdale, downtown, main street, rent, prices, economy


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here