Findings from a recent survey of local Laguna Beach businesses may provide a catalyst for change in town, including an expansion of the free trolley service and potential relaxation of some of the city’s signage policies, according to Chamber of Commerce President Michael Kinsman, who presented the data to a gathering of about 60 people at the Surf and Sand Resort last month.
The chamber conducted the survey over five weeks this summer when four college interns pounded the pavement. Conducting face-to-face interviews with business owners downtown, out Laguna Canyon Road to El Toro, and along Coast Highway as far north as Ledroit Street and as far south as Thousand Steps Beach, the students collected about 150 surveys, asking such questions as: what regulatory issues concern them; the origin of most sales; and the level of growth over the past year.
The survey was not scientific, but served to gauge business owners’ perceptions of city issues and where they stand economically, said Kristine Thalman, the chamber’s executive director.
Business owners have complained that the Chamber of Commerce catered mostly to downtown businesses, paying little attention to the north and south ends of town. But that is changing, according to Kinsman. “I joined the chamber reluctantly for some of those same reasons,” admitted Kinsman, whose accounting business is in South Laguna. “We are working very hard to represent those other businesses and we’d really love to have them come on board.”
He grouped the data into four districts: downtown and canyon, HIP district, Gallery Row in North Laguna, and South Laguna.
A surprising 31 percent of respondents cited no regulation issues affecting their businesses, he noted. As for those who did cite regulatory concerns, signage topped the list, followed by traffic and the homeless population.
Laguna Beach resident Judy Kelly, who last week closed her Pure Light Candle Studio, called signage a “huge” issue, and the fact that the city would not allow a sign directing customers to her upstairs business on Coast Highway was a contributing factor to her decision to leave town.
On the flip side, almost 70 percent of businesses on average reported their receipts were holding steady or moderately growing, with an average of over nine percent reporting rapid growth. Yet a worrisome 35 percent of Gallery Row respondents reported declines in sales, Kinsman noted.
Those findings surprised John Madison, owner of Madison Square and Garden Café, on the edge of Gallery Row. He wondered which businesses were in decline as his own has been increasing this year, as have other nearby businesses. Likewise, Joanne Artman, owner of Joanne Artman Fine Art, reported that her sales have increased each year since the gallery opened four years ago.
On the other hand, Tim Genet, one of a cooperative of 12 artists who make up Quorum Gallery, said their sales have declined this year and that fewer people have been coming in.
In another finding that surprised Kinsman, Laguna residents made up almost 40 percent of the average customer base, with 56 percent of South Laguna respondents claiming locals as their primary customers. That made sense since to be a successful in Laguna, a merchant needs locals and visitors, said Council member Verna Rollinger, among the city officials in attendance.
Based on the findings, the chamber will recommend city officials expand trolley service to include non-summer months, especially on weekends, Kinsman said, a suggestion well received by those in attendance. The chamber also hopes to initiate a “destination sign program,” posting banner signs to more effectively market and brand districts similar to the HIP district, in Laguna’s midtown.
Council member Elizabeth Pearson said she hopes the chamber proceeds with their district branding plans, while Rollinger expressed support for expanding the trolley service.
City Manager John Pietig said the City Council has already begun to address some of the issues raised during the chamber’s presentation, such as reviewing the trolley system and deploying more police patrols downtown.
Praising the chamber’s initiative, Pearson, who is also the co-chair of the city’s Business Assistance Task Force, said the survey demonstrated the chamber’s commitment to addressing its members concerns “It’s no wonder they’ve nearly tripled their membership in the last 18 months.”
Indeed, Thalman said membership has increased to 310 following a low of under 100 in January, which was partly due to expired memberships not yet renewed.