WANTED: RETAIL|City working to fill empty buildings

Published 6:58 pm Monday, July 6, 2009

By By Kerry Whipple Bean

While construction is moving along quickly on the north end of town, businesses elsewhere have shuttered in recent months.
A grocery store, drug store, two fast food restaurants and the old Walmart building are among the chains that have closed, and even more buildings near the old Walmart will be empty when stores move to a new strip mall on U.S. 31 North.
But city officials are working to fill those spots — and there are retail opportunities for those who work hard, economic development experts say.
The current economy has slowed some of those prospects, but Yuhasz said the city has taken a proactive approach to retail recruiting, including participating in a study to determine the best retail prospects for the area.
Closings in recent months have included Rite Aid, Winn Dixie, KFC and Taco Bell.
It’s too early to tell if the recent closings will hurt the city’s sales tax collections, with the most recent figures from April.
Yuhasz said the city has communicated with several chain family restaurants, clothing stores and a shoe store. Keeping the city’s name out there while the economy stagnates will help once things improve, he said.
Coastal Gateway Economic Development Authority President Wiley Blankenship said that kind of aggressive approach to attracting retail is essential.
Many cities are paying more attention to retail because of its importance to sales tax collections, Blankenship said.
But, like industrial recruiting, attracting retail takes patience, Blankenship said. “It takes a lot of work,” he said. “Everybody’s got to do their part.”
Key in knowing what kind of retail to attract is information about a community’s trade area — where shoppers are coming from — its “rooftops,” or household information;  and the buying behavior of those households and outside shoppers.
All of that information can be found in a retail study conducted by the Buxton group last year for the Brewton area.
But simply knowing what to target isn’t enough, he said. Cities must have a plan to communicate with retailers and, in particular, developers who seek land and buildings for the retailers with which they have relationships.
CGEDA has participated in recent years in retail trade shows at which economic development and community leaders can meet potential developers and retailers.
Building those contacts can help communities attract new retail, especially if land is available and a city has the trade area and buying behavior data to back up its interest.
But what about those empty buildings?
Are any retailers interested in moving into existing facilities?
Blankenship said there are many opportunities, in retail and beyond.
Even industry might be interested in larger stores, he said. And old Walmart building could be the perfect place, with its high ceilings and space for cubicles.

Email newsletter signup