Revitalizing downtown

Published 4:06 pm Saturday, August 18, 2012

A string of businesses recently opened on West Ridgeley Street is bringing new life to downtown Atmore. Four new shops have opened up in recent months.

At 24, Latisha Henderson might be one of the youngest business owners in Atmore. Fabulous Fashions, on West Ridgeley Street, just opened in May 2012 but Henderson said business gets better with each passing month.

Fabulous Fashions isn’t the only new business in Atmore or on West Ridgeley Street for that matter. Joel Lambert has helped transform the street into a block of small local businesses. According to Lambert, West Ridgeley Street was at one time used primarily as a shortcut for drivers to get to their destination faster than plodding through the many stop lights throughout Main Street.

Sheryl Vickery of the Atmore Chamber of Commerce confirms the street’s recent change in character.

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“It’s always been a little different than it is now,” Vickery said.

Lambert said he really wants to see a vibrant and diverse community and helping small, local businesses is one way to encourage such a result. Obtaining a business loan from a bank can be quite an undertaking for a first-time business owner, so Lambert saw an opportunity to help first-time local business owners pursue long-held ambitions.

Owning a fashion store is something Henderson has always wanted to do. Originally from Atmore, Henderson doesn’t take her business lightly either. She is currently on track to finish her Bachelor’s degree in Business from South University by May 2013.

Likewise, Kerra Mascaro was able to start her business through Lambert. She opened The Coffee House in May 2012 and so far business has gone well.

“I always wanted a business of my own,” Mascaro said. “It’s hard to beat fresh roasted coffee that’s brewed right.”

Lambert has kept the price of rent low at $300 per month and his tenants have been faithful in their payments.

“Everybody I’m renting with pays their rent on time,” Lambert said.

Lambert has four properties with one purchased in 2005, one in 2006, and two in 2007. According to Lambert, the buildings were in disrepair when he bought them, but he worked to fix them up. At one point, he owned Atmore’s Community Cup, but eventually he sold the property and it became Annie’s Community Cup.

Lambert would like to see local government develop a revolving loan plan that will help support local business. For instance, Lambert used to rent one of his properties to Anchor Café. Eventually, their business became so successful that they wanted to move to a larger venue and did so. Lambert said letting a business test the waters with less risk is what enables places like Anchor Café to become successful.

While she doesn’t rent from Lambert, Holly Dunn is yet another new business owner on West Ridgeley Street. Dunn apprenticed under Kim Gantt in Bay Minette at Town and Country Pet Grooming for around five years before deciding she wanted to try her hand at pet grooming here in Atmore. She opened Pre-Furred Pet Grooming on July 9.

“We’re holding our head above water,” Dunn said. “I’ve enjoyed seeing old faces and new ones of course.”

A big part of the new businesses’ success is the synergy between the businesses and the local community. For instance, Mascaro re-opens The Coffee House Wednesday nights because several local people suggested she do so. In fact, local elements are pervasive at The Coffee House. Mascaro uses locally roasted coffee beans, features art along the walls from local artists and ceramic mugs from a local potter, the same potter who also practices beekeeping and provides the honey the store uses. Wednesday isn’t the only night the store re-opens; on Friday nights, a featured musician from nearby usually performs.

Dunn is originally from Atmore, having graduated from Escambia County High in 2004. She said knowing the local community and gaining the trust of her customers is essential.

“The more that people realize who I am, the more likely they are to leave their pets with me,” Dunn said. “You have to treat every animal that walks through the door like it’s your own. I wouldn’t do anything else. I love my job.”

Henderson had a ribbon-cutting ceremony at her store on August 9. The event was confirmation to her of just how many local people support her and her business.

“The best part has been the customers. They keep it open—the customers,” Henderson said. “A lot of people that have come to the shop I’ve become friends with.”

Each of the new businesses works to meet the needs of their customers. Henderson accepts cash, check, debit and credit cards and even has a lay-away plan. As part of her grooming services, Dunn always offers a free flea bath and teeth brushing. Every drink Mascaro rings up on the register is made to-order, so that it’s as fresh as possible. The freshness hasn’t gone unnoticed by customers, and like Henderson and

Dunn, Mascaro said having a supportive local community has been important.

“I’ve had a really good reception to how my drinks have tasted compared to other places. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting people and getting to know them,” Mascaro said.

Mascaro already has a number of regular customers, including Kim Pierce. Pierce comes nearly every day around lunch.

“The lunch special is very good,” Pierce said.

Mascaro tries to support local businesses as often as she can.

“I’ve always felt like supporting local businesses is the way to go to help your local economy,” Mascaro said.
Vickery echoes Mascaro’s sentiments.

“We have to support all our businesses, but especially our smaller businesses,” Vickery said.

Vickery has been impressed with the mutual show of support by the businesses in that area of town.

“All of them are working together to help each other out,” she said.

Without any sense of self-aggrandizement, Lambert said local government members and local business owners have the power to change the entire community.

“A community can change from one person,” Lambert said.