September 25, 2008

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Slower nights?
Downtown Manchester businesses say they’re taking an economic hit

By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Normally on a Saturday night in downtown Manchester, groups of friends, couples, families and coworkers descend on the city’s countless bars, taverns, pubs, nightclubs and lounges to unwind after a long week. But lately nightlife business in Manchester seems to be off.

With the economy expected to get worse before it gets better, finances will be strained, and people are being forced to take a cold hard look at their spending habits. And business owners say one of the habits getting pinched is nightlife.

Wes Farmer, a 32-year-old hotel night auditor and history teacher from Hooksett, says he’s already started changing his spending habits.

“I know right away, one of the things my wife and I did was cut out going out to eat,” he said. “We used to eat out three times a week easily. Now it’s maybe once a week.”

Many bars and clubs have been offering more promotional drink specials and entertainment coupons, in an effort to keep a step ahead. The Flambeaux’s Web site states “our drinks are $4.75 instead of the usual $8 that some bars try to charge you.” Jimmy’s Sports Bar in Dover offers promotional coupons for a free hour of pool, and some venues are stepping up “get in free with this flyer” advertising campaigns.

“A lot of people I know — a few months ago if they were going out, wouldn’t have stepped foot in some of the bars that they’re going to now,” Farmer said. “But they’re going to them now because they can get a pitcher of beer for a dollar, instead of shelling out several bucks on just one drink.”

Though he does offer reduced draft nights, as well as a ladies night, Jim Batchelder, owner of The Wild Rover Pub in Manchester, says he doesn’t feel the need to resort to special promotions to keep his 18-year-old business going.

“The economy is always going to go up and down every few years. We kind of knew this was coming, because it’s a natural business cycle, so we’re pretty prepared,” he said. “We have our regulars, and in comparison, the economy problems now are nothing like the ones that we saw in the late ’80s, very early ’90s. It could be a lot worse.”

The only noticeable decrease Batchelder feels is with his food service.

“Lunches are down a little bit,” he said. “Mostly because that’s a quick, easy way for people to save money. Instead of going out for lunch, they are more inclined to bring it in from home now.”

Nightclubs are also noticing patrons battening down the economic hatches. Tim Kierstead, owner of Manchester’s Element Lounge, said he’s had to tighten his belt.

“I’ve definitely cut back on entertainment expenses.” he said. “People aren’t coming in on the weekdays like they used to, they are limiting their nights out to the weekend more. It’s been an odd year.”

Many businesses that experienced a sluggish summer received an extra blow when the remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna soaked downtown Manchester more than two weeks ago. Local bars and restaurants like J.W. Sports Bar & Grille and Piccola Italia Ristorante were forced to either close for the day or deal with low turnouts. Though both The Wild Rover and Element Lounge experience flooding in their basements, neither experienced serious damage.

“Some of the businesses further down the street got hit pretty hard,” Kierstead said.

Both business owners think home heating costs and crushing credit card debt are significant contributors to the reduction in consumer spending.

“Unlike in southern and western states, I think people in the Northeast are definitely more cautious in their spending,” Batchelder said. “Our home heating cost and use is different. When it comes down to going out or heating their home in the winter, people are definitely going to be more frugal and say ‘Which do I need more?’”

“People are wising up when it comes to using their credit cards,” Kierstead said. “More of them are coming in and paying with cash now, realizing the kind of debt that it could put them in. Everyone is being cautious, and with this being an election year, there’s even more uncertainty with what the White House is going to look like by next year.”

The Manchester business landscape is already beginning to look different.

“We’re starting to see a lot of local places go out of business,” Kierstead said. “All that we can do — the ones that are still here — is to tighten our belts and do our best. We understand that times are tough for everyone.”

“I’ve heard of other places having trouble right now, but I think that’s too many seats crowding Manchester,” Batchelder said. “It’s the largest city in the state and has been experiencing big growth in recent years, bringing in more businesses. The ones that are going to make it will, and the ones that can’t won’t.”

There are some glimmers of hope for the industry.

“We’ve all been feeling the pinch, especially this summer,” Kierstead said. “But things have started to pick up a bit, and actually, I just had one of my best nights ever for the business a few weeks ago. It was like New Year’s good.”

It’s these kinds of small, positive economic upswings that the consumers themselves are laying their hopes on.

“At some point, the economy will go up again,” Farmer said. “People will be tired of being cooped up and they’ll go out in droves to bars to drink again. Everyone will be ready to party again.”.