REI opens new Santa Barbara store

The 24,500-square-foot store at 321 Anacapa St. has filled all of its 62 positions but is still accepting applications, according to REI spokeswoman Beth Hawley.

“I look at what this building was and what it is today, and there is no question we took a very old — what I would say dilapidated — building and it is absolutely gorgeous, not only outside but inside,” said REI Southern California retail director Greg Mellinger, adding that the only downside may be in limited available parking.

Although there have been nine retail leases signed in the third quarter (more than the first two combined), the vacancy rate remains high for Santa Barbara’s retail sector at 2.7 percent, according to Hayes Commercial Group’s third-quarter review.

Local commercial real estate experts are hopeful REI’s new store will bring more foot traffic and attract businesses.

“I think it will have a positive impact for lower State Street,” said Michael Martz of Hayes Commercial Group. “That in conjunction with Casa Blanca are two key elements to push that lower State Street area in a positive direction.”

He added that it has the potential to positively or negatively affect local outdoor retailers such as Mountain Air Sports, Santa Barbara Outfitters and Trailhead, depending on how they react.

But Gregg Hirsch, general manager of Velo Pro Cyclery and Trailhead, said REI has more potential to hurt small businesses than to attract more foot traffic.

“I’m not saying these guys are shaking in their boots, but they know there will be competitive issues going on,” Hirsch previously told Noozhawk. “Big boxes work more with volume and profit margin, and smaller businesses will have their work cut out for them.”

But Hirsch said small businesses often distinguish themselves on customer service and specialization.

“I see REI as more generalist; local stores can be more specialized,” Martz said. “Stores could even thrive because REI could get more people into outdoor activities on a novice level.”

He said the health of the retail sector depends on the holiday season. Either way, Santa Barbara residents shouldn’t expect a dramatic absorption of vacant space anytime soon.

“Our competition at REI is not so much with other retailers” Mellinger said. “We really believe that our competition is overbooked schedules — we are busy people and sometimes it’s hard to get out.

“I’ve got three teenagers, and my son would be stoked to sit on Xbox all day long. That’s some of our competition.”