It’s Sunday and the Corner Cafe on Ringgold Road is closed. After stopping in last week for a late lunch, owner Melissa Davenport is fearful for the future of her tiny restaurant.
“I’ve put my heart into this place,” said Davenport, whose “meat and three” has something of a cult following. “I live in East Ridge. All the money coming through here stays in East Ridge. I buy local. My employees are all local. And everyone here in East Ridge, all they can talk about is getting a good chain restaurant.
“I don’t understand why people just don’t get it,” she said.
In recent years East Ridge city officials, with the help of a consulting company, have worked to bring in a number of chain restaurants.
Popeye’s near Spring Creek Road was first. Then came Firehouse Subs and Dunkin Donuts. The city entered into a deal with the developer granting incentives to get it done. Chik-fil-At came next down inside Jordan Crossing.
Marco’s Pizza followed. Incentives were offered there, but because of empty storefronts in the complex, the city hasn’t paid out any cash to date. The latest chain restaurant is Jack’s, just across from the Fire and Police Services Center on Ringgold Road.
Buddy’s Barbecue is coming to Jordan Crossing, along with Starbucks. A Lost Cajun franchise is just around the corner inside the complex that kicked off the whole Border Region Act incentives program.
But what has the city done for small businesses along Ringgold Road, the backbone of East Ridge for most of its nearly 100 years of existence? From where I sit, I think the answer is “not much.”
Ok, the “Grant Facade Improvement” program was initiated about five years ago. But I think a $10,000 matching grant from the city to spruce up the front of a building is not that significant. Apparently businesses agree, as only two or three businesses have taken advantage of the program.
And there’s a giant flaw in the program. The owner of the building is the one who must enter into the agreement with the city, not the tenant. So, someone like Davenport, who leases the space inside the little strip mall at 3920 Ringgold Road, can’t take advantage of it anyway.
Then there’s the whole signage issue that the city has grappled with for the better part of a decade. About 10 years ago, an overzealous codes enforcement officer was busting businesses for having temporary signs up to draw attention to their existence. One gimmick in particular – the wavy “Gumby” likeness – was outlawed. Vinyl banners strung up were a no-no as well.
The City Council began at the insistence of staff to regulate the ever-loving hell out of these temporary signs.
No signs, no customers. No customers, no business.
Back to Davenport and Corner Cafe. While I was sipping on my sweet tea, Davenport was lamenting the onerous regulations imposed, on restaurants in particular, by Hamilton County and the city. She told me of regulations on the frequency of grease trap clean-outs. Her business doesn’t produce much grease at all. Like it or not, for the cost of 350 bucks, it’s got to be pumped out every three months.
Fire suppression equipment for a grill hood … an inspector comes in flips a switch to see if it’s operable then puts his stamp of approval on it. The small business owner reaches for the checkbook to write a check.
Hey, the safety of customers and the environment is important. I get that. What might be out of whack is the associate charges. A small restaurant with 35 seats pays the same as a small restaurant with the capacity of 100, I’m told.
With extra slim profit margins, the cost of doing business reduces the margin to the status of anorexic.
If small locally-owned businesses on Ringgold Road are currently struggling, wait until they see what the city has in store for the springtime.
A two-phase beautification of Ringgold Road is coming. The small parking lots from McBrien Road to the Bachman Tunnel will be needed to accommodate sidewalks on one side and a 10-foot wide multimodal path on the other. Much-needed stormwater problems will be addressed, too. Underground holding tanks and retention ponds will be built.
City officials say it could take two years and $10 million to do the work.
Yes, the traffic disruption will be biblical. Officials understand that. It cannot be avoided. The payoff, officials say, is that the improvements to the city’s commercial corridor will attract “new investment.” Anyway, that’s how it’s supposed to work. And I’m told it has in other cities.
But here’s the question; what happens to the small businesses on Ringgold Road? I think I know the answer to that. They may not survive. If they do, it will be a minor miracle.
Back to the Corner Cafe. I asked Davenport what she was gonna do to keep things going? She had no real answers.
“People talk about how East Ridge used to be,” she said. “Well, guess what? East Ridge used to have tons of local businesses.
“With all this development, we stand to lose every local business that we’ve got if people don’t support them.”