Monday, February 25, 2008

So Long, Vale-Rio Diner

Over the weekend, the Vale-Rio Diner in Phoenixville, PA served its last least for awhile. Its owners have decided to sell the property it stands on (also occupied by the historic Fountain Inn) to a developer who wants to put in, surprise surprise, a CVS and a Starbucks. The Starbucks would at least reuse the first floor of the old inn building, and I imagine it could be really cool if they do a good job (I'll spare you the rant about chain coffeehouses displacing local businesses). But instead of keeping the apparently-not-as-lucrative-as-they'd-like historic diner where it has been since 1948, and building a CVS on other property they own down the street (which, incidentally, already has a couple of chain drugstores within a short distance), the owners want to relocate the diner somewhere else in the borough and build a CVS at this prime location.

As at least a few people have pointed out, if you want your historic property to be a commercial success, how is moving it to a yet-to-be-determined (but most likely less prominent) site going to help? Especially when you factor in the costs: cost to buy more land, cost to relocate the building and prepare a new site, the cost of loss of historical integrity from being on a new site, the cost of losing and having to win back your loyal clientele, the cost of firing your existing staff and then having to find a whole new workforce at the new site... Never mind the cost to dozens of employees, who are essentially losing their jobs because management got sick of running a diner and wanted to cash in.

The Inquirer article I linked to contains some interesting details about the reasoning behind this fiasco. The owners are now whining that people they approach about buying a new site are jacking up land costs right and left because they know the owners are obligated to put the diner there. Cry me a river. I say, keep jackin' up those prices, folks. The owners got greedy and made the diner their sacrificial lamb, essentially selling out hometown character to placate the gods of big chain-store developer bucks. Phoenixville as a community should be doing everything it can to thwart these people.

To reopen, the Puleos said, they must also find a way to cut some of the hidden costs. For instance, since heating and cooling an uninsulated stainless-steel structure is very expensive, Francis Puleo said, they might put the diner inside a larger building.

He also said the Vale-Rio would likely be modeled after a Cracker Barrel, where merchandise supplements the diner's revenue.

"You have to have another economic tool to make a diner work today," he said."

Um, guys? Part of the point of a diner is to be visible from the street, with a recognizable shiny-faced facade. How is putting the diner inside another building going to help draw people in? Also, diner owners nationwide, many in much more severe climates than Pennsylvania, have these same HVAC costs, and they aren't using that as an excuse to close up.

Also, if the place wasn't making money, were there other things that could have been done to change that? If you ask me, the diner's surrounds could have been spiffed up considerably to attract new customers and make it more of a destination. It sat in a sea of asphalt next to the run-down looking inn building, with a seasonal ice cream stand on the other side, and this trio of properties always seemed a little forlorn and seedy. Better food and better PR would have helped too. Instead, it was like excruciatingly slow demolition by neglect.

Further, with Phoenixville becoming a revitalized dining and entertainment destination in recent years, why not be a good community steward and catch that wave at the same time? If the owners had invested more in upgrading the site and finding a better tenant at the Fountain Inn, the Vale-Rio and the Fountain Inn could easily have been part of the Phoenixville revival. They stand at a major gateway to the historic downtown commercial-industrial zone. Now that gateway is going to be marked by CVS and Starbucks. Welcome to Phoenixville, where we have the same chain stores as every other suburb!

Finally, if the diner owners were so sick of dealing with running these money-losing commercial properties, why not sell the entire property to new owners willing to take on rejuvenating the Vale-Rio and the Fountain Inn and maintaining them as a community asset, instead of to a developer whose clients are chain stores? Maybe you wouldn't make as much money as selling to the developer, but you'd earn serious community goodwill. I'm obviously not a land investor, but to anyone in business, that's got to count for something.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the Starbucks will really open there since they are now closing stores in the area? And I really wish there was a way to stop the blight of CVS/Rite Aid/Walgreen construction...they are well know for buying up fabulous old historic buildings, knocking them down and building these boxes where they sell mediocre stuff that we really don't need. I'm hoping the economic downturn will bring their spread across the country to a screeching halt!!