OCEAN CITY — Former Pennsylvania residents Mike and Arlene Zizza always wanted their own retail business in their favorite vacation resort, but high rents on the Boardwalk and in the city’s downtown posed a barrier to entry.

So last year they jumped at a chance to open a vintage-decor shop in a new retail cooperative in the former Stainton’s department store.

Stainton’s: A Gallery of Shops opened last year, giving the Zizzas and more than 60 other new merchants a toehold into Ocean City’s coveted business district.

Some longtime businesses on the ave-nue were skeptical of Stainton’s business model, said Skip Tolo-meo, of Ocean City, president of the city’s Retail Merchants Association.

“There was a concern that it would be more like a flea market,” he said. “That was the negative concern when the concept was brought along. But they seemed to have done well.”

The Zizzas moved in to the Merion Park section of Ocean City and began stocking their designated retail space at Stainton’s with metal industrial furniture, picture frames and home decorations.

“This gave us an opportunity to open a store in Ocean City,” Arlene Zizza said. “On the avenue, rents are expensive.”

So far the experiment has been a success, she said.

The couple was among the first tenants to sign leases for the new space. Since then, they have taken over several other retail spaces in the sprawling building named after the late Ocean City businessman and philanthropist, Howard S. Stainton.

“I think it’s going to be good,” Mike Zizza said. “We thought it would take about two years to start making money. That was in our business plan.”

Under the cooperative, the department store’s open floor plan is divided into evenly sized display areas. Customers can browse at any of the shops and take their purchases to a central register that credits each merchant for the sale.

The monthly lease pays for cashiers, cleaning and other expenses. The tenants also are required to take turns staffing the gallery each month, but that frees them up most of the week.

This last part was critical for the Zizzas, who run a second business trimming trees along railroad rights of way under government contracts.

“Since we have a landscaping company, we couldn’t spend all of our time at the store,” she said. “So we’re here about one or two days per month — more in the summer.”

Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29 turned Asbury Avenue into a giant lake, damaging many of the stores downtown. Stainton’s was inundated by floodwater and had to close for repairs through November.

But the shops reopened in time to salvage the Christmas shopping season, said assistant manager Kate Chiumento, of Ocean City.

“The town really rallied around small businesses on the island that could reopen,” she said. “We have a dedicated team of employees and vendors. They were working around the clock to get us ready.”

One Asbury Avenue business, the Cricket Box, opened a space in Stainton’s while its owner decides what to do with the store this season, Tolomeo said.

Anne-Louise Thomas, of Voorhees, had an online store for years before she opened the Ding Dog custom collars and leashes shop at Stainton’s last year. Now that she has raised her three nearly grown children, she can spend more time traveling to dog shows and agility contests to promote her products.

Thomas said she always vacationed in Ocean City, and when the opportunity presented itself, she jumped at it.

“I think the first year it was just getting established. People were getting to know the concept of the cooperative,” she said. “This summer should be a good one.”

For Asbury Avenue’s established merchants, suddenly having 60 new retail neighbors who are not burdened with high rents might create some resentment.

But, Tolomeo said, merchants think the cooperative has been a good fit for the downtown. Asbury Avenue has about 119 retail stores — with a mix of restaurants, cafes, bakeries, candy stores and salons — with few vacancies.

Tolomeo, who owns the Asbury Avenue store Sea Oats, said some merchants may see Stainton’s as a competitor. But most think it brings more people into town.

“It’s like having two kid’s shops downtown. The owners of the stores don’t appreciate it, but it does bring more people in to compare prices and inventory,” he said.

For this same reason, the city’s downtown sponsors a twice-annual Block Party featuring hundreds of out-of-town vendors that set up booths on the avenue.

“I call it prospecting. You do something to let people know there is a downtown,” he said.

Tolomeo said vendors who outgrow Stainton’s could easily take up residence in their own Asbury Avenue store one day.

“It’s a good feeder program. It makes some sense,” he said. “Being in retail is hard.”

The Zizzas said they would love to open their own shop on Asbury Avenue.

“Absolutely, but that’s not our ultimate goal,” Arlene Zizza said. “We don’t want to have to work so hard anymore.”

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217