But while the falling real estate market has indeed had a negative impact on business in general, Cindy Williams of ReMax Commercial Properties said the current climate has actually improved the downtown's prospects in some ways.
"The rental market soared in downtown Brentwood about two years ago, going well over $2 per square foot," she said. "Now things aren't so bad. They're down around $1.50 to $1.75."
Those rents are more affordable for the kinds of "one-of-a-kind, boutique ideas that are now coming forward," she said. It's exactly those types of businesses that collectively will allow the downtown to stay afloat in the face of competition with the "corporate identities" that are paying as much as $3 per square foot to locate elsewhere in the city.
While national retailers like many of those found along Lone Tree Way typically draw customers from up to five miles away, smaller stores tend to draw from within one mile of their location, according to Community Development Director Howard Sword. For stores along the Brentwood Boulevard corridor - from Lone Tree Way to Balfour Road and including the downtown - that amounts to 25,000 potential customers.
The key, said Sword, it letting those potential customers know that most of what they shop for is available with less driving, closer parking, and better customer service that is often found in the corporate environment of huge strip malls and giant retail outlets.
"Probably 75 percent of what people buy is available elsewhere," he said. "But people don't know about it, so they don't think about going there."
While the economic downturn has affected everyone, other factors have contributed to the papered-over windows Sword.
"The primary factor was burn-out," said Laza, who also kept his full-time job during his establishment's six-year run. "The store was certainly making money. Then again, if it had really taken off, I wouldn't have had to keep my other job.
"The big thing was, we didn't see an end to the level of effort we were putting out. I couldn't see when I might be able to hire more people and be just an owner/manager. When you don't see the growth coming, it's hard to keep the effort going."
Many have pinned their hopes for the downtown in the city's plan for the new civic center, trio of parking garages and new streetscape. Brentwood Redevelopment Director Gina Rozinski said that while work is progressing on the downtown revitalization plan, property acquisition and water and sewer system improvements must come first, meaning it will take a minimum of two years before wholesale improvements to the area will be done.
In the meantime, said Economic Development Director Linda Maurer, efforts to maintain viability of the area are taking other forms.
The efforts include the city's façade improvement program, in which $125,000 in grants are available for downtown businesses that want to improve the look of their establishments. One such grant has already been made for the Morgan Stanley building on Oak Street, and others are in the works. A similar program aimed at businesses along Brentwood Boulevard in the north part of town is also being put together.
Maurer said the city is also working on a "flex" dining plan, which would allow downtown restaurants to offer more al fresco seating by blocking off parking spaces in front of their buildings and putting tables there. That would improve not only seating capacity, but also the ambience of the entire area.
In addition to physical improvements, Maurer said a cooperative effort between the city and the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce will be developed to create marketing plans for each of several commercial areas in the city, including the downtown. The plan is to develop a voluntary association that merchants could join if they wish to take advantage of the kind of promotional efforts that are currently not possible on their own.
"Businesses in shopping centers have an advantage in that, when they sign their lease, they agree to participate in marketing plans, keep certain hours, maintain a certain appearance," Sword said. The result is a cohesive marketing effort that benefits everyone in the center, something that does not occur downtown.
"Right now, (downtown businesses) are all spending their dollars pretty much ineffectively," said Sword. "In a coordinated effort, those dollars would go a lot farther." He added that a voluntary association would also enable the city to contribute economic development subsidies to help stretch merchants' promotional dollars.
Laza believes that having the city participate in such an association would be a good thing. In fact, he believes it should have happened much sooner, and that the downtown has not been the focus it should have been all along for city officials.
"While they've gone out of their way processing permits and building stores, parking lots and everything all over the city, they've done very little downtown," he said. "Things are almost exactly the same as they were when we opened the Wine Store" in 2001, he said.
An attempt to create a voluntary merchants' association recently stalled, in part because downtown business owners are, by nature, independent, and resist what might be perceived as an attempt to tell them what they can and cannot do, said Chamber President Shelly McMahon.
A renewed effort will be part of the Chamber's plan to widen the services it provides its members, which will include assistance with individual marketing plans, providing assistance in obtaining small business loans and coordinating larger promotional efforts customized for specific areas of the city, such as the downtown.
"You have to gain the consensus of business owners in baby steps," she said. "Maybe you start by getting everyone to stay open to 6 p.m. on Thursday, and then promote it."
While independence - and thus resistance to follow the herd - is a hallmark of the established businesses downtown, she said, so is business savvy. If owners are shown that something works, they'll probably do more than just go along with the program.
"There's a group of business owners here that are pretty strong-headed, and they'll push this forward," she said.
Kerri Marvel, owner of the Gooseberry Fool restaurant on First Street, said she firmly believes not only in the one-for-all, all-for-one concept of cooperative marketing, but in remaining flexible enough to do whatever it takes to succeed. She's adjusted her hours several times, most recently extending them to 7:30 p.m. weekdays and 8:30 p.m. Fridays. She's hoping other merchants will follow suit, taking advantage of the customers she brings to town and helping her by attracting their own. It's capitalizing on the collective foot traffic that makes everyone stronger, she said.
Case in point is this year's Farmers' Market, which for the first time was held on First Street in front of her restaurant. While there were some doubts initially about the market's choice of time and place, she said that opening for breakfast during the market improved both cash flow and visibility.
"The Farmers' Market probably saved my business," she said. "People didn't know I existed before." She hopes to spread the word about cooperative marketing for the common good.
"We've got to do what it takes, to change as needed," she said. "Everyone has to be at least willing to listen, and buy in when there are events."
Helping merchants bring people who are already in the area through their door is something incoming Chamber President Kathy Reed said is part of the plan already. The Nov. 7 Taste of Brentwood Restaurant Tour, for example, is mostly a walking affair focused on downtown. The Chamber is encouraging stores to run specials that will draw in diners as they stroll past.
While the vagaries of the economy have some downtown merchants working day-to-day to keep the doors open, many are also looking downrange with enthusiasm. Kathy and Kirk Thill's A Fine Time for Tea opened this week, and the future of downtown is something they strongly believe in, even if it's two or more years off.
"Two years is actually a pretty quick pace" considering everything that needs to be done, said Kirk. The downtown better suits their unique, destination-type business, the success of which they hope will contribute to the downtown as a whole.
"We want to be a part of the revitalization," said Kathy. "We could have gone to the Streets of Brentwood, but we don't want to be part of the corporate scene. We're not Starbucks; we're the epitome of slow food."
For business owners like the Thills who have their eyes on the future, Williams said, there's no time like the present to think about downtown.
"This is the ideal time to get in, while there's this kind of nervousness in the market," she said. "Then they're locked in, and all the improvements will happen around them. This is definitely a window of opportunity."