Saturday, February 03, 2007

Downtown becomes ghost town as protests continue

Downtown becomes ghost town as protests continue
Number of vacated businesses is multiplying

By Lysandra Ohrstrom
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: After two months, the tent city in Downtown Beirut has become a fact of life for most residents of the capital, but for many commercial tenants the opposition demonstrations have proven to be the final straw after a string of political disruptions stretching back to 2005. What began in January with a few restaurant owners and retailers trickling out of the Beirut Central District (BCD) to other locations in the capital now looks like a mass exodus from what was once one of Lebanon's most popular districts. On Friday, The Daily Star counted more than 30 vacated properties, empty of both merchandise and customers. At least 20 more stores were closed. Some shop windows still bear liquidation signs; others read "For Rent;" and a few point customers to different branches. "Hope to see you in better circumstances," is scrawled in black marker on a dry-erase board hanging inside the Massaya Beirut Restaurant.

Those establishments that are still open advertise sales and promotions, taking last stabs at luring the stray customer. Most of the remaining merchants say they plan to wait one more month before making a final decision to close or relocate. An employee at the Doodle Doo sweet shop says most tenants began closing two weeks ago. Even though the store sees little customer traffic - by mid-afternoon on Friday it had made only one LL 4,500 sale - the employee says his boss refuses to quit the BCD on principle. "I'm a supervisor but I have no employees to supervise," Hadi Adnan says. Since the war, Doodle Doo, like many employers, has had to cut down on shifts, prompting many employees in the BCD to find other jobs or leave the country, he explains. "It's really bad because 90 percent of the employees here are university students. Most didn't register for the fall semester because they did not work this summer. I don't think a lot of them will register for classes in spring either," Adnan says.

Since the summer 2006 war with Israel, 100 of the Virgin Megastore's 300 employees have left for other countries and, to a lesser extent, other jobs, says Jihad Murr, the owner of Virgin's Lebanon franchise. The store has not taken steps to replace them. Instead the Martyrs Square location has narrowed its operating hours, from 10 a.m. to midnight to 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. "We are living on a day-by-day basis," Murr says. "In three months we will re-evaluate ... The worst-case scenario would be to temporarily close Downtown for a year or two, but it really depends on the results of our next promotion. December was not a catastrophe because we did all of the ad campaigns." The franchise has lost more than $2 million from all Lebanon locations combined since the war, but the Martyrs Square flagship has suffered most of all, he says. Sales in January were 70 percent below the expected levels. Murr's landlord forgave one month's rent in 2006, a gesture Murr calls "nice but far from reality."

Solidere - the real-estate development company responsible for the reconstruction of Downtown following the Civil War - exempted businesses from two months of rent payments during the July-August war. In December the company told some tenants that they would offer similar compensation if the demonstrations wore on for a second month, says Sami Hochon, the owner of the Lina's sandwich franchise whose flagship is in the BCD. But he has not heard the offer mentioned since. Individual landlords have been less generous, according to many business owners. Though demand for property in the BCD is obviously down, they have refused to lower rents. Dida Ghossoub, the owner of the Dayama clothing store on Rue d'Uruguay, has been shipping clothes to Dubai to be sold because "no one is buying clothes in Lebanon right now." "I want to order my summer collection now, but I'm afraid to," she says. "Who knows if we will be open?"

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