A Chat With Pet Pangaea Owner Cyndi Wells
By Greg Kendall
Cyndi Wells is the owner of Pet Pangaea. Wells started Pet Pangaea in early 2005. Since that time, Wells has been searching for a location to build a store. Recently, I sat down with Wells and discussed the state of small business ownership in Los Alamos.
Wells came to Los Alamos in 2000 for a post doctorial position at Los Alamos National Laboratory and became a technical staff member. She has a PhD in Chemistry.
Wells is married to Mike Warren. He works at LANL as an astrophysicist in T-Division and isn't involved in the store. They have a three-year-old daughter.
Wells has been involved in Search and Rescue in Los Alamos. When she opened Pet Pangaea she had two dogs, Jasper and Hana. Jasper passed away in 2009 and Hana died on June 25 of this year. In 2003, Wells received a Distinguished Performance Award from the Los Alamos National Laboratory for her work as a member of the Iraq Inspection Team.
Local pet store, Pete’s Pets, closed in 2004 and moved to Santa Fe. Wells saw a need for a community pet store when she and others were faced with the drive to Santa Fe for "decent dog food." Wells opened her pet supply store to customers Feb. 19, 2005.
Since then, Wells has expanded her space by taking over the former Lemongrass & Lime Restaurant and Quest Diagnostics spaces in Central Park Square as well as an additional space on the other side of the adjacent Laundromat.
Originally 900 square feet, Pet Pangaea now leases more than 4,000 square feet. The retail store remains in the original cramped space with the additional space used to store inventory and a portion used for office space.
Wells answered questions posed by the Los Alamos Daily Post (LADP):
LADP: What was it like getting started with Pet Pangaea?
Wells: I said to myself, I can do this. I’ll open a store. I can do this. It’s really a labor of love. In retrospect, being a small business owner in Los Alamos, we have great customers, but I don’t know if I would have done it had I know the real problems facing small business owners in this town. I thought we needed a store and I did both (store and Lab employee) until 2008 and then I had to make a decision. I was working 130 hours a week doing both jobs. I took the Reduction In Workforce (RIF) deal that the Lab offered. I felt I was doing something good for the community. I still work what amounts to two full times jobs … but now only at Pet Pangaea.
LADP: What is the biggest issue facing small business owners?
Wells: The largest issue facing small business is land ownership. I really feel like we don’t have a fair market for available land and there are a lot of reasons why. I’m not saying it’s necessarily anybody’s fault. There are some things we can do to help, but I don’t know if we are necessarily doing it. I think that is the biggest impediment to small business.
I think a lot of small businesses in this town struggle with this … I don’t pay myself. This business wouldn’t exist if my husband hadn’t taken on the bills. It’s an extremely time consuming hobby and I really do it for the community. But I am also doing it with the mind that I believe we can solve some of the infrastructure problems. That is tied up in the whole land ownership issue.
I’m doing this for the community because I think it’s important. I’d like to see a lot of change for small business happen here, where people can make a living. Business owners work hard and should be able to make a living off of it, but with the current situation I believe a lot of business owners cannot. One issue is that the Lab has a really big footprint downtown. (The Lab and contractors) are clustered right around downtown, which should be our prime retail district. We are hemmed in by DOE and Pueblo land with not a lot of expansion space and it’s not an easy thing.
It’s not terribly easy here, but I think there could be creative solutions and I don’t know that we have pursued them. Some people believe that the Lab offices downtown brings foot traffic into the downtown area. We’re not like a normal city where people have choices of where businesses can be located for retail. We have a limited number of land owners. To me this is a big problem and unfortunately we haven’t solved it with the approach to Trinity Site either.
In a comparable town our size, nobody pays the rent I pay. I pay almost $7,000 a month plus utilities for space that is half-usable. I would invest heavily in this building (at Central Park Square) and fix it up, and then we would have a better building here for the community, but the problem is I don’t own this building. I looked into remodeling the building for our needs. The intent was to knock down the walls and I had the architect plans done, but I have to bring the entire building up to code in order to do some of these things. I would have to redo the electrical in the building. The construction bids came back at $300,000. I can’t put $300,000 into a building where I can get kicked out of when my lease runs out. (Wells' lease ends March 2015.)
So as small business retailers, we are competing with the Laboratory for space and we are competing with the County also. I don’t mean this to disparage the County but the reality is that we have limited land. I’m not against the teen center or a conference center, but if you choose to do that you are actually choosing against small business retail.
People say, “there is plenty of retail space.” No there is not, because a lot of it is really setup for office space with no loading docks. What about people who have packages? You don’t want them walking up and down stairs. Not only don’t we have enough space at the right price, we also don’t have adequate space. That’s why we don’t have retailers. There are some really severe retail space economic issues. We’ve got this artificial rent economy. It’s just not conducive to retail development. And then we are competing with the municipal building site.
No business could have afforded to take down the old apartment buildings, but the County taking down those buildings and making it a shovel ready site at fair market prices - ready for retail development, that would have been some decent economic development. But we decided to put the municipal building there instead. You can build a pretty nice building for seven grand a month in rent. I’m part of an association of national pet supply retailers and other stores are paying $9 to $12 a square foot in rent, not the $21 a square foot that I pay.
If you’re on the Plaza in Santa Fe, you’ve got a lot of retail traffic that we don’t have. My prices are good but there is a perception that we charge more in Los Alamos. I’ve done price comparisons and our prices are fair and often less than out of town prices. It is possible to run businesses up here, but you have to run them really smart. Every dollar literally counts.
LADP: We have heard rumors about local businesses trying to negotiate space at Trinity Site. You and Dunn Quilting are the only two to confirm your negotiations. Where do things stand now with negotiations to lease a space at Trinity Site?
Wells: I tried multiple things (to find space) and one of them was Trinity Site. I was negotiating with Grubb & Ellis, who, at the time, was representing North American Development Group. Grubb & Ellis says that they have an agreement with Kroger to be the leasing agent for some of the space there. We were working through an agreement with North American Development Group that had gone back several iterations and was fairly close, but then just before North American pulled out there was no more interaction.
I went to the council meeting where Kroger representatives Don Burnett and Steve Sorensen spoke and after the meeting I talked to Sorensen and he said he wasn’t sure, but he thought his superiors would think that (Pet Pangaea) was ‘competitive retail’ and he wasn’t sure if I would be allowed into the Trinity Site development. He later asked if I need delivery trucks. When I said yes, Sorensen said, ‘I don’t know if we can accommodate truck delivery on site.’ That is a pretty astounding statement. They have a blank slate of land that they can do pretty much whatever they wanted on it, so the question is, “what do they want to do with it,” and my guess is not retail.
I stepped away from my Lab job to provide a pet supply for our town. So as a person who really cares about this, what I find fundamentally disturbing is that this started out as being more of a ‘life-styles’ center, maybe some small retailers and an anchor. I am not against Smith’s and Smith’s Marketplace, but I think the original vision, no matter how much everybody wants it, is not going to happen. We really should have gone to another mechanism for it.
It is kind of unfortunate and I’m not saying anyone did a bad job, but we are where we are and that looks like Smith’s Marketplace, a big parking lot, a bank and a fast food restaurant. I don’t think we are going to have much other retail there. I don’t know if that is what the community originally envisioned and maybe that will help the community. It would have been nice for the County to make part of the parcel available to smaller retailers so that businesses like Pet Pangaea have an option for a long term lease or to buy the land and build nice retail buildings.
We are a small town, but we are also a great town and we have this opportunity to make ourselves a really pedestrian friendly community. I spent a few thousand on attorney fees negotiating for a retail location at Trinity Site. When you work at the Laboratory, a couple thousand dollars for something here or there is no big deal, but for a small business, when you spend a couple thousand for something it’s a choice that you can’t update a computer or rebuild the one that you have or something else. You have to make those choices.
The cost to go into Trinity site is $22 a square foot. It’s expensive. We have a lot of people who care about their pets and I am crazy enough to do this without pay, so I am willing to pay that, but affordability is an issue as well. We get visitors to Los Alamos, but what is going to keep them here. Do you want a bunch of unique shops that have some character or do you want the same chains that exist everywhere else? We would be better off creating something that has some character.
LADP: We have heard that you were looking at trying to develop a store at the Municipal Building project location. Is that location still in play for Pet Pangaea?
Wells: There is a larger fundamental problem of this identity issue of what we want the downtown to be. This came up with the municipal building project. I did apply with a developer, along with a number of other small local businesses for the municipal building retail site RFP. (The RFP was for building on the southwest side of the site.) A year ago there was an RFP out for buying that land, but one of the things that came up was the County’s concern about parking issues.
They’ve got a 0.6 acre parcel that they want high density development on and they also wanted somebody to put parking there. You can’t really do both. This goes back to that identity thing. You either are really concerned about parking downtown or we are going to let our downtown get denser, allow our bus system to work and make things really pedestrian and bike friendly. We’ve got to decide how we are going to do this and I think that is part of the problem right now. My view as a small business owner is that we don’t have a clear vision of how we want the downtown to end up and some of those things conflict that we are trying to do, like the parking and having the high density development on a small parcel.
Editor's note: County Administrator Harry Burgess informed the Los Alamos Daily Post that a response to the RFP for the Municipal site retail development has been selected and negotiations are underway. A development contract will be brought to Council by county staff when negotiations are complete on the contract. Wells said that Pet Pangaea was not a party to the selected bid.
LADP: What about constructing a building in White Rock?
Wells: I have talked to Greg Fisher about space in White Rock. The problems they have (in White Rock) are some of the same issues as Los Alamos: a bunch of buildings with aging infrastructure. Financially, you can’t make it work because you would have to go in and do a major remodel. I’d like to have a satellite store in White Rock. I’m hoping that they create more small business pads that would be available for a long term lease or purchase. Then I can build a satellite store.
Post: What can small business do to make things better?
Wells: Who cares about the small businesses in this town besides our customers? There is a group of small business owners working together to form a small business merchants association and to improve Los Alamos. The group is designed to give the small business merchant community a voice, to help organize, be able to work together and promote each other’s businesses. It’s basically to improve the retail and merchant community. This group isn’t trying to supplant the Chamber of Commerce. This is a group to give a voice to small merchant businesses. The Chamber has different objectives.
LADP: I heard you mention something called the LION concept. What is it?
Wells: It’s so easy to trade securities these days with E-trade and the like, why can’t you invest in the business down the street? We are working on the Local Investment Opportunities Network (LION) concept. It allows deals between businesses and individuals. It’s similar to crowd sourcing but it allows individuals to invest in small businesses. I can’t go out and raise money for a new building, but LION can help with this type of investment. It’s an interesting concept. I think it is going to be part of the small business/merchants association we are working on.
LADP: What is Pet Pangaea doing to compete with the Internet?
Wells: We have to adapt. Retailers have to be innovative in today’s environment. There is also something to be said for walking into a store and they know who you are and they know what you need. I’m not quite as pessimistic on retail. You can’t see all our products because of space problems so we are changing our point of sale system so you can shop online at Pet Pangaea. We have over 9,000 items for sale. We purchased an electric vehicle to deliver products to homes because we can’t do it with the cost on a gas vehicle. It’s a Nissan Leaf. Customers will order in the morning and products will be at your door in the afternoon. Online places still can’t do that!
I’m a small fish in Los Alamos, but nationally (Pet Pangaea) is getting pretty well known. I’m getting called by national pet industry magazines to do interviews.
LADP: Do you think we need a parking structure downtown?
Wells: We’ve got tons of parking and it’s not being used correctly. There is no reason our downtown has to be a big parking lot. Why don’t we have more 1 or 2 hour limit parking? For example, post office employees park in the Ruby K lot and take up spots all day. There are customers for those businesses that are trying to park and be in and out in five minutes and they can’t. I don’t think we need a structure. It just takes up space, too. We need to re-think how we use our parking and create simple rules. If we want to make our bus system better, why don’t we have direct routes from the neighborhoods to downtown that bypass the Lab’s transit station?
How are we going to get past this identity crisis of what we want our downtown to look like and also determine what it isn’t? We don’t have that over-arching guidance. There is the downtown plan but then they (County Economic Development) don’t even follow it themselves. There is this sort of schizophrenic thing going on.
LAPD: Any final thoughts?
Wells: When I started I just didn’t have a clue. Frankly, if I knew then what I know now, I would never have done this. I am concerned that small business is going to continue to get squeezed. We just don’t have habitat. I can’t speak for all business owners but there is definitely a sense that we aren’t valued in the community. We are losing gems, like Otowi Station Books Store and Hallmark, because there are key issues being ignored. I think a lot of business is running on the edge and sustainability is a big problem and it’s not being resolved. Maybe it’s okay that a business comes in and when they can’t take it anymore another business comes in, but we really need more sustainable businesses.
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