Lunatix & Co. owner Courtney Matthews was flustered, frustrated and flushed in the summer heat so the tears she fought just mixed in with the sweat. The little shop at the intersection of Springhill Avenue and Dauphin Street has been a cornerstone of creative esprit d’ corps for the last couple of years but is now facing hard times.
In light of a calamitous ledger sheet, Matthews has closed the doors for a week or so to regroup. She’s mounted an uphill climb for the part-gallery/part-shop that has been a linchpin in attempts to build community downtown.
“I’ll sell a painting or a book every now and then but I make so little from it in order to help the artists out,” she said.
She’s hosted free events for the neighborhood, movie nights and trunk sales and other things to bring people together but it hasn’t weighed out in the end.
Though it’s no salve for Matthews’ wounds, she’s hardly alone. Look no further than the last issue of Lagniappe for evidence.
When the Nappie Award for favorite gallery was handed out, the first place winner was Robertson Gallery followed by Host Gallery, same as last year. Sadly, Host Gallery closed its doors a year ago – not long after the 2012 Nappie Awards – and Robertson Gallery is following suit. That’s right, the August LoDa Artwalk is Robertson Gallery’s last day in the spot at the corner of Hamilton and Dauphin.
Brad Robertson is moving to a new spot in the Oakleigh Garden District, closer to his house and only a couple of blocks from Callaghan’s. The former site of Cox Drug Store is nearly half the size of his current location, but it has advantages.
“It was a matter of leasing as opposed to owning,” Robertson said. There’s also a terrible pitfall that has been a top problem downtown for decades: lack of foot traffic.
“I had two people walk in here all of last week,” Robertson said. “One was looking for Wintzell’s and the other was the Kentwood water man.”
Robertson who sits on the Mobile Arts Council board is no shrinking violet. He invested time and energy into downtown four years ago and though he personally makes money through commissioned works, the overall economic health isn’t good.
“To stay here would have been a matter of pride,” he said, “but we just barely break even during Artwalk.” It’s not for lack of exposure on those nights, as his floor is well trod.
Yet during business hours, downtown sidewalks remain lonely stretches of concrete outside a few scant blocks close to Royal Street. None of us should be shocked to hear this as this major impediment to downtown revitalization has been notably cited by every one of the high-priced studies we pay for every few years to tell what we already know.
A lot of us talk a grand game about downtown and supporting local business. That started with great verve two decades ago and has only grown since but when the cash register tallies up the actions behind the words, it comes up dreadfully short.
“Talk is appreciated but only actual monetary support will help us survive long enough and longevity is the only way to encourage more potential local entrepreneurs to feel confident they will survive,” Matthews said.
Matthews has well over 1,000 “friends” of her shop’s Facebook page. She explained that if each one of them merely spent $10 a month in the shop, she would have no problem keeping the lights on and the doors open. But as it is, all they have are well wishes and then they go on their way without another thought to it.
A couple of years ago, while on a workgroup for downtown “hospitality zones,” Artifice watched and listened as the Downtown Business Alliance’s Elizabeth Sanders and Carol Hunter spoke with obvious frustration about Mobilians’ aversion to downtown. Many years of banging their heads on those walls were vexing and painful.
I’m not surprised as abundant complacency has been easy to spot in the Azalea City over the last three decades. Everyone seems to be constantly awaiting some economic cavalry’s charge over the hill to save everyone without citizens actually having to do anything too strenuous. Tenn-Tom, homeport, convention center, cruise terminal, ThyssenKrupp, Airbus, it doesn’t matter; we’re too busy with football scores and church gossip to get off our apathetic duffs and seize control of our own fate.
For a town so filled with a conservatism built around an ideal of rugged individualism, there’s an awful lot of reliance on someone else to seize our bootstraps and do all the tugging. Maybe what we’re essentially conserving is the energy that could be put into caring about anything beyond the end of our fingertips.
Then again, maybe I should expect as much from a metropolitan area where folks who live less than a 15-minute drive from downtown proudly distinguish themselves as not being “Mobilians.”
If you don’t invest in our arts district, spiritually and economically, it will continue to flounder. After all, “you get what you pay for.”