Recession takes toll on Freeport businesses, large and small

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FREEPORT — From L.L. Bean to national chain stores to independent local shops, the economic recession is wearing on downtown businesses.
Brothers Matt and Jason Eggleson have owned Fairbanks, Frost & Lowe, a jewelry store at 21 Main St., for nearly 15 years. But their business won’t weather the current economic climate. 
Matt Eggleson said he noticed in the last three years traffic has slowed in the village area. He said the money made in the summer months usually supports them in the slower winter months, but that revenue was declining year after year. It got to the point where they needed to make 30 percent more to get to where they would break even.
“We were running out of credit, and decided to close the business on our own terms,” he said. “We are lucky because we have paid our creditors, but for some, it can go from a dream to a nightmare very quickly.”
Jason Eggleson said there were a lot of factors that contributed to the store’s closing, but in particular, 2008 was difficult for retailers.
“This is widespread,” he said. “Come the beginning of the year, I think everybody will experience a rude awakening.”
Jason said exorbitant heating oil prices last winter and the high gas prices in the spring affected business and tourism across the state. He also said retired people usually visit in the fall, but the stock market crash changed that opportunity. Finally, two weeks before Christmas, the weekend ice storm sealed the store’s fate.
“It is very sad that almost 15 years is ending, but it is definitely a sign of the times,” he said. “We’ve seen hundreds of stores come and go in Freeport, but never thought we’d be one of them.”
Matt said he will still work part time setting jewelry and sizing rings, and his brother will go into the banking business.
S&K Menswear, a business that has been in the village for more than 10 years, is also closing its doors.
According to store manager Sabrina Pepin, the business could close shortly after the new year.
She said 37 of the nearly 200 S&K stores in the country will be closing. The one in South Portland will remain open.
“This closure is directly related to the economy,” Pepin said. “By closing this store, we may help the financial situation of the other stores.”
Even L.L. Bean, at the heart of Freeport’s retail business mecca, has seen a drop in consumer activity.
Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said the retail store has been “clearly impacted by the economic slump.”
“We went into this year with caution and conservative projections and expected sales to be flat, but they may in fact be down,” she said. “We need to see what does that mean for the business and how do we manage the expenses.”
Beem said one option the company will probably consider is an enhanced retirement package to avoid involuntary lay-offs. She said solutions are expected to be analyzed a few months after the new year.
Myra Hopkins, executive director of the Freeport Merchants Association, said although there are a few stores closing in the village area, there are also new stores to open in the last year.
“We’ve seen new stores relocated to Freeport, and some existing businesses will have complete renovations,” Hopkins said.
With the Village Station construction underway, Hopkins said there will be 28 to 40 additional stores opening by 2010.
“I feel optimistic because I sit across from the complex, and can see what is to come to Freeport,” she said. “It will bring new jobs and economic growth.”
In the meantime, she said, businesses are increasing their level of service to accommodate shoppers. Valet parking and other services make customers feel good about spending money in town.
She said although people are still shopping, they are more thoughtful about their purchases.
“A lot of businesses have been concerned about the season and may be preparing for a little less this year,” she said. “I hope to end the season as flat as possible.”

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net.
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