“To chain or not to chain” — that is the question.

In a year when a Starbucks latte or gallon of gas can set one back a whopping $4, the boycott of all things franchised — and the subsequent shift to supporting independent retailers — is slowly becoming the trendy thing to do in America, circa 2008.

Venturans are soon to make some similar choices as the city’s downtown commercial district finds itself in a corporate versus independently-owned market often viewed as a critical component in defining a community’s character, tastes and preferences toward growth.

In the works, a Fresh and Easy market will be calling the corner of Thompson and Seaward avenues home, bringing its smaller, Trader Joe’s-scale personality to Midtown. And clothing manufacturer American Apparel, known for its progressive policies toward immigration and labor almost as much as its CEO’s track record of sexual harassment charges, looks forward to “vertically integrating” a location on East Main Street.

Big business balance

It becomes a balancing act of retaining Ventura’s independent spirit while sandwiched between the  wealthy predilections of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, with attracting residents from said areas while generating revenues for the city.

Santa Barbara took that notion into consideration when an American Apparel was ushered onto State Street last year. According to Steve Cushman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, brand recognition is a magnet for foot traffic.

“To some extent it will help,” he said, “because if you get a store like a little miniature Tiffany’s, just the name will draw people to the downtown area, even if they don’t buy anything.”

Hype over the new-and-improved Granada Theater in Santa Barbara displaced some State Street business owners unable to cope with a rent hike.

“The landlords knew when that theater opened and it would drive customers in, they could get tenants that would be willing to pay significantly more,” Cushman said.

One such bidder was Old Navy, now leasing out space formerly occupied by an independent sporting goods retailer.

Sensitive to moments when the little guy is pushed out, Ventura is no stranger in its resistance to big name stores. In the big box game, the battle over bringing a Wal-Mart to Victoria Avenue, most notably, has been played out in local arenas.

“Generally speaking, we prefer to see local owned businesses and merchants. They’re the backbone of our community,” said Ed Lacey, spokesman for Livable Ventura, a group opposed to Wal-Mart in Ventura.

Lacey said Livable Ventura’s biggest gripes with Wal-Mart are the company’s historical record of poor labor practices, and bad wages and bad benefits toward its employees.

The reverse could be said of American Apparel, a company noted for its philanthropic endeavors and vertical integration management style. Interestingly, the company’s sound ethical reputation hasn’t faltered from — and may even be aided by — the controversy surrouding founder Dov Charney, the company’s CEO, who has endured no less than five lawsuits from former female employees claiming both harassment and an improper, sexually-charged workplace at its Los Angeles headquarters.

Staying ahead and getting along

Downtown Ventura merchants, some of whom did business with American Apparel in its wholesale days, are more concerned with how neighborly the working relationship will be.

Laurie Battaglia, whose Aphrodite’s has been a staple at Main and California streets for a decade is not threatened by the big name entry to Downtown and says she welcomes the competition.

“I don’t care about American Apparel coming in,” she said. “I think it’s good … it just depends on the business.”

“I think it might flow with what we have going on in here,” said Leslie Thoms, owner of the Tiki Lounge on Main Street. “My issue is more of a corporate place coming to Main Street.”

She said clothiers on Main Street have a cooperative trust between them and hoped American Apparel, when it moves in, can understand.

“We try not to step on each others’ toes,” Thoms said. “If we can continue to do that, we can hang on.”

There is semblance of that in even the staunchest of pro-small business communities. In Ojai, city officials last year passed an ordinance permitting retail chains in its commercial sector, albeit with strict regulations towards limiting store size and toning down appearance.

Demographic, not geographic

That doesn’t mean setting up an American Apparel, or any chain store, will ensure guaranteed success in any location. According to Scott Eicher, CEO of the Ojai Chamber of Commerce, it’s demographic, not geographic.

“It’s a small town and there are only so many people here,” he said. “If they’re willing to and they can support it, a business will thrive. If they can’t, it won’t. It’s difficult for everybody.”

A spokesperson for American Apparel did not respond to an e-mail requesting an interview for this story.