Crunchy Downtown White Plains
August 2001--As White Plains focuses on plans for a large-scale redevelopment of the corner of Main and Mamaroneck, a small but mighty cluster of one-of-a-kind specialty stores a few blocks south has quietly managed to put White Plains on the map as the "crunchy" capital of the region without much public fanfare. Indeed, an intrepid triumvirate of entrepreneurs—Andy Kimmerling of Westchester Road Runner, Manny Polloni of American Terrain, and Neil Svendsen of Manna Foods—has been taking on the competition from nearby malls and national chains for years by catering to a growing, highly discerning health and fitness-conscious demographic.
"I see this two-block pocket [along Mamaroneck and East Post Road where the three stores are situated—along with the destination sports specialty shops High Caliper Bicycle Co., ANL Sports and The Complete Golfer] as indicative of where American culture is going," reports Johnny Dowicyan, Westchester Road Runner‘s long-time manager. "People are getting more and more interested in quality of life, in community, and in health and fitness for themselves and their children. They are well educated and they expect us to be. Every Footlocker that opens just brings us more customers because they can‘t answer the customers‘ questions the way we can." Boasts Dowicyan, whose reputation is legendary throughout the tri-state area for finding the perfect shoe for even the most problematic runner‘s foot: "All we can say is ‘bring on the competition‘."
Westchester Road Runner first opened its doors in downtown White Plains 21 years ago at 209 E. Post Road and moved to its present location at 179 E. Post Road in the late 1980s. "We have survived because we draw from a 50 mile radius—we have a regional base," says Kimmerling. "We have one of the biggest selections of running shoes and apparel on the East Coast. If it is made for running we either have it or can get our hands on it quickly."
In the 1980s, Westchester Road Runner sponsored seven running events that drew between 5,000-6,000 people to downtown White Plains. But all that changed in the early 1990s when the city stopped offering the races free police protection. "When you need 25-30 police and have to guarantee four hours the minimum cost of a race is $5-$6,000," says Kimmerling. "So the races disappeared." The tradition has experienced a mini rebirth in the last three years as Westchester Road Runner, Mack Cali Realty and the White Plains Department of Parks and Recreation began co-sponsoring a 5K race in downtown in the fall.
Neil Svendsen opened Manna Foods at 171 Mamaroneck Ave. in 1977 after working at Manhattan‘s first health food store—The Good Earth—on the Upper East Side. He then went on to manage an outlet of the Nature Food Center in midtown. Now his nearest competition is another national chain— GNC--half a block up the street. "These big corporations lose touch, and there is tremendous turnover in personnel," he says. "They make us look good. We are not just in the natural foods business, we are in the information business." Svendsen notes that his own expertise has grown to meet the expectations of customers as the supplement part of his business has become "more technical." His natural food product line is also expanding as people become more aware of the value of organic foods. "And they will go out of their way to buy food that they know is not genetically altered," he says. Lately Svendsen has also been adding more dishes to the menu of his vegetarian lunch counter, to keep up with the demand from lovers of healthy eating who flock to Manna like a noontime Mecca.
Manny Pollini and his wife Roseanne opened American Terrain at 175 E. Post Road (next door to Westchester Road Runner) in October 1993 (Manny had previously worked at Dakota Dry Goods Store, which closed its doors in the mid 1990s.) "We started out with clothing and footwear and have evolved into travelware, camping, climbing and kayaking," says Polloni. (Polloni suited up this novice with everything from travel suds to hiking shoes for a walking tour of Italy last May.) This fall he will be adding a line of children‘s clothing including jackets and footwear. "The trend is for people to recreate closer to home—to get away from their computers and have family fun through exercise," says Polloni. "The Hudson water is getting cleaner and we are leading hikes to help people discover the White Plains trails system." Indeed, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm as he described the beauty of a recent solo trek along county trails off Lake Street.
At a lively and free-ranging early morning discussion with the three retailers before opening time at Westchester Road Runner, the conversation naturally drifted to a discussion of the City Center at Main and Mamaroneck. How do these seasoned businessmen view the Cappelli project, which promises to bring well-heeled residents to downtown White Plains as well as a proliferation of national chain stores? Kimmerling says he will welcome the project if it puts more people with means on downtown streets. "If it brings more credibility to White Plains I don‘t see it as competition," he says. "Even if they have an Athlete‘s Foot and Footlocker it wouldn‘t bother me." Svendsen qualifies his enthusiasm: "Yes, we are in favor of building up downtown White Plains," he maintains. "But there is a fine line to walk between progress and maintaining quality. And we hope landlords will be as reasonable with independents as they will be with chains."
Polloni is not so sure that the City Center will have a significant " trickle down" effect on his business, nor does he think the city should be providing such large financial incentives to the developer: "They talk about a halo effect, but what happens if there isn‘t any?" he asks. Of another Cappelli project which received significant government incentives he maintains: "REI [the sporting goods store which recently closed its doors in New Rochelle] was one block away and New Roc didn‘t have any good impact on them."
Whatever the outcome of developments at Main and Mamaroneck, Polloni maintains that the city has to do much more to attract an eclectic and interesting mix of entrepreneurial businesses. "We need a small business program," he says. "And we need meaningful, low interest incentives on a city level for small businesses to attract single store owners in other communities to open a second store or to help existing businesses expand. I say ‘let‘s promote from within.‘"
All three retailers, who share many of the same customers, say they have considered expanding but are wary of the pitfalls of growing without the right plan in place. Says Svendsen: "The main challenge an independent faces is keeping the product flow moving without overextending yourself. But it‘s a discipline that makes you a better person. More mayors should run their own businesses downtown. In fact, it should be a prerequisite of the office."
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