Main Street workshop talks business recruitment, retention
By AUDREY INGRAM
A vacant storefront costs everyone in a community, business redevelopment specialist Hilary Greenberg said during a Main Street Iowa workshop in Jefferson last week.
The costs include $250,000 in lost sales, $16,250 in lost payroll and nearly $25,000 in lost business profits. An empty storefront also means one less business on the tax roll — meaning less money for local education, too.
“If you want more money for your school districts, you will develop downtown property,” agreed Jim Thompson of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
The downtown commercial district is the largest tax levy in a region, and more money is generated when it’s fully occupied — a goal that includes moving out under-used businesses and filling upper stories, often with housing, said Thompson.
Greenberg, principal of Greenberg Development Services, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm, wrapped up a two-week tour through Iowa communities in Jefferson.
The topic: Business recruitment, retention and redevelopment of neighborhood commercial districts and downtowns.
Demographic changes are very real, Greenberg stressed. Iowa’s population is shifting overwhelmingly to cities, growing older and gaining diversity.
Business challenges, too, are very real — long-standing businesses and entrepreneurs face stricter credit and financing limits, which can delay expansions or capital improvements.
Consumer trends are also very real — younger generations are increasingly mobile; the baby boomers are aging, now buying health care products instead of houses.
Vintage, thrift and recycling became popular during the recent recession, and everyone wants to support “green” environmental efforts. Buy local is more in than ever, Greenberg added.
“Iowa is full of very well-educated and well-traveled consumers. They get local and want to live in small towns,” she said.
These attitudes translate into jobs for their children and money for their schools — but in the heart of the state’s agricultural region, not a single small-town restaurant proudly claims that the corn on its menu is grown locally, Greenberg observed.
In smaller towns, business owners often assume everyone knows what they sell — they don’t utilize their facades as billboards, she said. Streetscapes also highlight area businesses — but a renovation doesn’t do any good unless it is promoted.
Downtowns should have a “sense of place” — highlighting unique aspects of a region, such as bell towers, historic hotels or brick main streets — and be “walkable” to attract customers and businesses alike, Greenberg added.
Cities with courthouse squares, such as Jefferson, should find ways to cross-promote businesses, Greenberg said — visitors on one side of the square can’t see businesses across the square.
Downtown organizations should also pay attention to the lives of business owners.
It is easier to find someone to buy an existing downtown business than to recruit a new downtown business. But business owners often show reduced profits to pay fewer taxes. These reduced profits can turn off potential buyers — it takes about four years to get a business ready to sell, said Greenberg.
To retain businesses, leaders should help increase “click and brick” businesses — many downtown shops sell as much or more online as they do over their counters, she said.
Crowd-sourcing is a way leaders can use social media in business recruitment and retention.
Interested individuals pledge financial support to fund a specific endeavor, or “catalyst project.” Business leaders can use this number of individuals as a statistic to encourage businesses to open another store in their downtown, or the funding pledges as startup capital to lobby a bank to loan funding for a project.
Catalysts projects are large projects that spur development — examples include cultural centers, art museums, restaurants, breweries and farmers markets.
But the best tool for recruitment remains direct contact — leaders approaching businesses popular with their residents and asking owners to open another store in their own downtown.
“You usually never get the businesses you call, but they’ll know someone,” Greenberg said. “You build a reputation.”