Downtown Stillwater business booming despite the cold, short season

Despite the temperature of 5 degrees above zero, White Bear Lake resident Donna Rotschafer, center, and her daughters go to lunch and do last-minute Christmas shopping in downtown Stillwater Dec. 23. At left is Sarah Rotschafer, visiting from California. At right is Jessica Rotschafer of White Bear Lake. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Despite the temperature of 5 degrees above zero, White Bear Lake resident Donna Rotschafer, center, and her daughters go to lunch and do last-minute Christmas shopping in downtown Stillwater Dec. 23. At left is Sarah Rotschafer, visiting from California. At right is Jessica Rotschafer of White Bear Lake. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

With Thanksgiving falling late in the year and frigid temperatures driving shoppers indoors, businesses in downtown Stillwater faced a tough challenge this holiday season.

“Everything’s kind of more compressed and a little more intense,” said Meg Brownson, owner of Alfresco, a furniture, home and garden store downtown.

But they’re overcoming the challenges, according to Brownson.

“The cold weather — it’s been a little rough, but I think people are coming out anyway,” she said. “I haven’t really heard anybody say they haven’t been busy.”

Sherri Hopfe, president of Stillwater’s Independent Business Association and owner of the Dock Cafe, agrees. She recently asked about 10 members of the association how they’re faring, and the response was positive.

“Sales have been quite strong, despite the weather, in most places,” Hopfe said. “The holiday parties have been booked as far as the restaurants go.”

Even among retailers, she said, business is good.

“There are a number of businesses downtown that have had their best year in years, despite the construction and everything,” she said.

Tessy Thompson, owner of Gallery 310, said her business has seen a 15 percent increase in sales year-to-date over last year, and December sales have been stronger than last year, too.

“People seem to be in very good spirits and starting to come out and shop,” she said.

Although she feared the cold would keep customers away from her store — which sells art, pottery, furniture, jewelry and more — two of the coldest weekends were also two of her busiest.

Heather Halvorsen of New Richmond, Wis., looks for a Christmas gift for her father at 45 Degrees in downtown Stillwater Dec. 23. The owner of the store, which sells outdoor gear and apparel, says the cold weather has actually helped business. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Heather Halvorsen of New Richmond, Wis., looks for a Christmas gift for her father at 45 Degrees in downtown Stillwater Dec. 23. The owner of the store, which sells outdoor gear and apparel, says the cold weather has actually helped business. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

45 Degrees, an outdoor clothing and gear retailer, has seen success this year, too. Because of the nature of his product, owner Jeff Anderson said he welcomes the cold.

“We actually thrive on this kind of weather because of what we sell,” he said. “It’s actually helped our business. … It is definitely busier than last year.”

Why is business booming despite the best efforts of nature and the calendar?

“Some attribute it to the economy for sure,” Hopfe said.

But she said there’s more to it. She said the advertising by the convention and visitors bureau “has really put downtown Stillwater on the map again.”

She believes the Independent Business Association, which started during the recession, is doing its part, as well.

“The IBA has offered a lot of fun things this holiday season that make people want to keep coming down,” she said, mentioning attractions such as the Twinkle Parade, the Victorian carolers and live reindeer.

Hopfe enjoys hearing people make comments like, “Oh, you never see this kind of stuff at the mall.”

“We’re always working on the experience down here,” Hopfe said.

Brownson believes the cooperation among IBA members has played a significant role in the success of downtown businesses this year.

“We’re kind of all working together,” she said.

Both Brownson and Anderson believe the city and businesses have been doing a better job with snow removal this year.

“The town is really looking great,” Anderson said. “It’s been a real nice partnership with the city this year.”

Brownson has noticed one more factor in this year’s success: residents.

“We’re seeing more and more residents come down, and people are recognizing the shop-small, shop local effort,” she said, adding that shopping local is a trend nationwide. “I think people are realizing that it’s really important that we don’t buy everything from Walmart and China, or we’re going to lose our uniqueness.”

Contact Jonathan Young at jonathan.young@ecm-inc.com

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