Fluctuating rent prices and a hostile economy are threatening to take the local flair out of State Street.

Darkened storefronts are becoming a common sight downtown as businesses are forced to close up shop in light of the current economy. Moreover, national retail chains are keeping the rents high with their corporate-backed budgets. On the 900 block of State Street alone, there are four closed businesses and others that are struggling to stay afloat.

Hempwise owner Al Espino has been in business for 20 years and opened his second Hempwise store at 927 State St. two years ago. Although Espino enjoys the new market offered by the downtown location, he said rent is getting expensive.

“Rent has become very inflated here, and everybody on the block is working really hard to keep business up,” Espino said.

Susie Dougherty, co-owner of The Green and Yellow Basket — a store that has been on State Street since 1950 — also said rent is problematic, especially because landlords refuse to lower prices during economic downturns.

“There are some stores on State Street that have been vacant for two years and [the landlords] won’t come down on rent,” Dougherty said.

Real estate lease prices are determined by the fair market value of the property, a value that is based upon prices of other comparable properties in the area. When the economy is suffering, the fair market values of real estate tend to decrease. However, according to Jason Jaeger, a sale agent at Radius Group, a commercial real estate company headquartered in Santa Barbara, some property owners purposefully decide not to lease their spaces and wait until the value increases to lease again.

“A lot of property owners can ‘keep it dark,’ as we call it, until the market turns around,” Jaeger said.

Another factor that is driving up rent prices for local businesses is the presence of national retail chains. According to several store owners, national chains come to Santa Barbara for the prestige and can afford to pay higher prices.

“More corporate interest brought rent rates up on State Street,” Espino said. “They are willing to pay a premium just to be here.”

The local vendors said they do not resent the chain stores’ presence in Santa Barbara but did admit that it makes leasing a space harder.

“The national stores don’t care how much they pay; they just want a store in Santa Barbara,” Dougherty said. “The average person like us can’t pay the prices that they do.”

Despite problems with expensive rent and intense competition, store owners are hopeful that their business will pick up. Espino places his hope in the general population of Santa Barbara.

“It has been a real struggle, especially for the local businesses, but the people of the community can support local businesses and help keep them going,” he said.

For Dougherty, the success of The Green and Yellow Basket rests on the store’s ability to cater to the customers’ desires.

“I think we are successful because we find products that people want, and we try to be unique and different,” she said.