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Laguna Retailer Finds Friendly Vibe at City Hall

Reuse Jeans owner George Powell and his son Luke, whose interest in recycling provided his dad an inspirational business concept. Photo by Ted Reckas

Like many business owners before him, Reuse Jeans owner George Powell received his share of sardonic “good luck” quips when mentioning his plan to open shop in Laguna Beach.

Either he experienced good luck or something has changed at City Hall because Powell described an “ultra business friendly” reception and staff that smoothed the opening of his flagship store at 1020 S. Coast Highway earlier this month. While city officials say the latter is the case and owners of several other recently opened businesses echo that sentiment, Powell’s experience also suggests an upturn in the local economy with a surge of new businesses.

Powell, a garment industry veteran expert in the production of high-end jeans for designer labels, launched his own Reuse label from 80 percent recycled cotton in 2009. The wasted remnants in garment factories fueled his inspiration, sparked also by an earnest conversation with his then 3-year-old son, who questioned why more besides bottles couldn’t be recycled. The light went on for Powell. Why not recycle jeans?

Until now, Powell, officially a Texas resident with a retirement home in Laguna Niguel, has been selling his “green” jeans wholesale to boutiques and stores across the country. The Laguna store is the only company-owned retail operation, which Powell chose as his flagship location to tap the community’s environmental awareness and what he views as its “melting pot” demographics. Since opening May 5, Powell estimates that 40 percent of customers are foreign visitors.

He came by the location through friend John Fotch, broker for landlord Randy Hargrave and an occasional matchmaker. “I was in the store 10 days later,” said Powell.

Fotch, a 25-year resident, has noticed a marked change in the city’s approach to prospective merchants recently. “They have become much more open and welcoming to small businesses, especially businesses that fit the image the city is portraying,” he said. People dreaded what they viewed as an adversarial experience going to the counter at City Hall. “Now it feels like team work,” he said. “It’s nice to see that.”

Over the past 18 months, business owners and community leaders who volunteered with council members on two business-assistance task forces have made progress in making Laguna more business friendly, said Council member Elizabeth Pearson.

As evidence of their success, or possibly an improving economy, task force member Rose Hancock contends business formation this year is far ahead of 2010, though she provided no figures to back the assertion.

A recent report shows that since January 2010, 14 new restaurants have expanded or been approved and 23 other commercial businesses have also received approvals. In another economic indicator, local sales tax revenue, which hit a low in 2010, has inched up in each of the last two quarters, said the city’s financial director Gavin Curran.

Among the goals accomplished by the task force are the re-assignment of a planner to applicants for conditional use permits, typically required of any merchant; and quarterly “Open for Business” workshops that de-mystify the process of opening shop. Principal planner Monica Tuchscher said the staff’s goal is “to help everyone who comes through the door.”

“The process couldn’t have been smoother,” agreed Jim Donegan, co-owner of Rock’N Fish restaurant, which opened last December in the historic Heisler Building. Contrary to talk among some skeptics, the restaurant’s business is good. “We are above expectations heading into summer,” said Donegan, who recently added live acoustic classic rock to their menu Wednesday through Saturday nights.

“I have had great interaction with the city,” added Wendy Estreicher, owner of Hillary, a children’s clothing boutique, which relocated last week to Ocean Avenue from an initial location on Cliff Drive.

Estreicher, who said that her husband attended one of the workshops, found city staff helpful, particularly in encouraging cooperation when another merchant opposed her permit during a CUP hearing.

Even so, a business-friendlier culture will not prove a universal panacea. Tom Ahern, owner of Latitude 33 Bookshop at 311 Ocean Avenue, announced this week giving up the search for a new buyer to take over his shop, now slated for closure in August.

Though he was contacted by 17 prospective buyers, none made an offer. Ahern, who ran the shop for 15 years, says he can’t afford to keep the shop open any longer, citing a downturn in receipts due to the poor economy, less tourist traffic, and competition from online retailers and the popularity of e-books.

Meanwhile, the owner of Reuse Jeans bets growing eco-consciousness and his reasonable price point will sustain him. Special events for the store’s official opening this weekend include a model casting call from noon to 3 p.m. on May 28 and a live performance by musician songwriter VK Lynne on May 29.

The store’s vibe in recent visits rivaled the new friendliness touted at City Hall, warm, welcoming and ready to please.

For more information, visit http://www.Reusejeans.com.

 

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