The face of retail has changed considerably since 2009 when the national recession began. Large and small retail companies had to reevaluate their investment, and in too many cases they determined the cost of staying open far outweighed the potential revenue.
With so many closures, communities of every size are facing an abundance of empty commercial property. The social and economic impact of empty stores can be devastating on small communities who rely on commercial tax revenue. Police and schools are always the first to be impacted, but surrounding retail space also suffers as the problem grows. Empty retail space immediately starts to depreciate…the longer it’s empty, the less it’s worth.
Hope Mills is lucky in that the influx of thousands of troops to nearby Fort Bragg kept the local economy afloat long after the rest of the nation was wallowing in an economic depression. Similarly, we began to emerge from the depression long after the rest of the nation, which means they’ve already faced a lot of the challenges we’re facing…and found solutions.
In East Brady Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization came up with an ingenious idea to promote empty commercial spaces. In cooperation with property owners, volunteers cleaned store fronts, installed blinds or curtains to create a backdrop, then placed art from local artist in store windows. There was a media blitz on social platforms with artist, property owners, real estate agents and community pages all sharing information and photos of the groundbreaking idea. People were drawn to the storefronts to see the art, but in doing so they were creating foot traffic past available commercial spaces. It was a huge success and most of their empty store fronts were leased or sold. As a bonus, many of the art pieces also sold.
In another small town, the Chamber of Commerce created videos to promote their available commercial properties. They collaborated with the Historic Preservation Committee to speak about each building’s history, local contractors talked about the potential uses and refurbishing, and real estate agents gave detailed information about the spaces. These were shared all over social media and again, the program was hugely successful.
In terms of economic development, we’ve dropped the ball. There’s some argument as to who exactly would be responsible for building a solid economic development plan and implementing it….the Board of Commissioners…the Chamber of Commerce? Traditionally, the Chamber spearheads the movement and works in conjunction with the local government to offer incentives.
Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where the Chamber hasn’t worked with local government leaders in years and shows no sign of correcting that problem. But…our local government is arguably worse. Commissioner Larson spearheaded a campaign to alter the sign ordinance, outlawing anything with a pole and insisting all new development uses the shorter, and considerably more expensive, monument signs.
We also have one of the worst sidewalk ordinances ever written. When a local business retrofitted an existing store on Main Street, they triggered the ordinance and became financially responsible for installing a sidewalk across the front of the entire shopping center. They don’t own the building, they simply rent. They aren’t occupying the entire center, just a portion of it. And a good portion of the area where the sidewalk needs to go is occupied by utilities.
This ordinance essentially makes small business owners…and homeowners…responsible for the municipality’s 100 years of oversight. We are responsible for correcting their lack of interest in sidewalks, because they don’t have the means to correct it themselves. How many small businesses have the means to comply with these ordinances? How many will see the sign ordinance or sidewalk ordinance and decide it’s easier and more cost-effective to establish their business somewhere else???
Each time someone new moves to Hope Mills, we experience a small measure of economic growth. They buy food, gas, goods, and recreate locally which stimulates our economy. And we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve had steady growth for ten years. But we’ve reached the point where we don’t have the infrastructure to sustain the population. Our residents venture outside of Hope Mills for much of what they want. We need to attract more residents to Hope Mills and we need a retention plan to ensure they have everything they want here and don’t rely on neighboring communities for their needs. (link)
A large part of planned economic development is in establishing ‘quality place making’. We need to establish a thriving downtown area with an emphasis on arts, culture and activities….
- Entrepreneurial infrastructure – a community that is supportive of new businesses startups and has programs such as economic gardening in place
- Diversity – communities that are tolerant of and socially welcome diversity of race, religions, beliefs and life-styles.
- Green and blue infrastructure – natural areas, parks, trails, water resources and so on
- Social infrastructure – a community with social activities, events and things to do
- Public transportation infrastructure – a choice as to how one gets around the community, not just automobile, but also bike, walking, and public transportation to and between amenities
- Variety of housing – a choice of different types of housing, not just single family homes on lots, but also housing downtown, apartment buildings, and so on (what is important is to provide choice)
- Information technology infrastructure – high-speed internet
- Collaborative capacity – a community that works together and has many collaborative and cooperatives efforts for accomplishing community-wide projects (Kurt Schindler)
We need a plan and civic leaders with the wherewithal to follow through on these initiatives. Our Board of Commissioners have consistently worked towards making the town less friendly to businesses, especially in recent months. These are important issues to consider during this election year…