Chardon city officials listened last week to a proposal that would boost retail business in the city.
City Council’s Economic Development Committee met with Dennis Mahr, representing Retail Strategies, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama who offered an analytics approach to determining how to grow the city’s retail base. The cost for the service is $40,000 per year.
Mr. Mahr said his firm brings 25 years of experience in the field.
The company’s service provides a review of what customers the city is serving and what their needs are. In addition, Mr. Mahr said, his company will provide an inventory of existing retail and what retail the city may wish to attract that will not compete with existing businesses. He said his company also has the contacts with major chain retailers to provide the marketing data that will bring them to the city.
“We can determine what is the highest and best use for property,” Mr. Mahr said. “We identify all the factors are retailer is looking for to make it a home run for them.”
He said the firm examines each property and can determine whether it is better suited for retail or office space and will help the city establish realistic expectations. He said the company’s service also provides facts that will allow officials to explain why they don’t have a particular business, such as Trader Joe’s, when residents ask.
He also promised his firm could increase foot traffic for businesses in the city.
Mary Glauser, executive director for Chardon Tomorrow, which promotes economic development, said locally-grown businesses are needed, not just the large chains.
Councilwoman Heather Hudson Means said the city has not asked residents what they want to see.
Mr. Mahr said his firm does not just rely on large chains, it also looks at a 30 mile to 50 mile radius around the city to see if businesses have three or four stores, which indicates they are willing to expand. His firm would show why Chardon offers a successful environment for their businesses.
Councilwoman Nancy McArthur said she does not want to see a glut of establishments, such as auto part stores or dollar stores, brought in as new businesses.
Pat Martin, owner of Antiques on the Square, asked if Mr. Mahr’s firm would also seek out the smaller, “mom-and-pop” stores which add to the quaint charm on the square.
Mr. Mahr repeated that the firm would seek out those looking to expand their businesses and would show them who their customers are and why they would be successful.
Mrs. Hudson Means noted that while there is a focus for small businesses on the square, there are many places around the city where a smaller business could locate. She asked what role the city plays once the firm has collected its data.
Mr. Mahr said city officials could be involved as much or as little as they want. He said the firm would do outreach every day to attract new businesses to the city.
Marci King, owner of Marci’s Hair on the Square, asked whether the same role is being played by the Main Street program for Chardon.
City Manager Randal Sharpe said Main Street is concerned with maintaining the historic character of the square and ways to draw more people there. It does not attract new businesses.
Mr. Mahr offered an example of what the company can do, saying it worked with Bowling Green and brought that city a Menard’s and Dunkin Donuts in its first year of working with that city.
He said the company would also provide a user-friendly website that businesses can access to see where their customers lie in the Chardon area, what land may be available and who is the contact person to speak with about locating in the city.
Mrs. Hudson Means asked whether the city’s community development administrator, Steve Yaney, was supposed to be doing outreach for the city.
Mr. Yaney said he focuses on land development, the permitting process and a property maintenance code. His only economic development involvement has been in meeting with existing businesses. He said there has never been an active outreach to attract new businesses. He said a company like Retail Strategies will compliment city staff, noting that they have the connections to work with new businesses.
Mr. Mahr said that is one advantage of his company because the city does not need to pay a salary or benefits to an employee to do this work.
Mrs. Martin asked whether Retail Strategies can work to keep the square vibrant.
Stephanie Talty, owner of The Nest, said many visitors to the city come to expect the small shops on the square and make an event of it, spending their day visiting those small shops.
Mrs. McArthur said Retail Strategies will be able to bring more people into the city to do their shopping. “They have all the data and they can draw people in,” she said.
Sylvia McGee, owner of Beans Coffee Shop and Bistro, questioned whether that will serve to protect the square. “Who’s going to protect the integrity and charm of the square – the charm of what Chardon is?” she asked.
Mrs. King, likewise, said people are attracted by the unique shops on the square. She said a doll hospital drew in crowds and that is the type of stores that should be attracted to the square.
Mrs. Talty said it is the local shops that contribute to the community, noting that she makes contributions to the Chardon baseball teams. She said the customers come to them because they are local and support the local community. She questioned why communities like Chagrin Falls, Medina and Hudson have vibrant downtowns, while Chardon “looks like the step-child.” Bringing in law offices and title companies into vacant storefronts will not draw more people to the city.
Mrs. Hudson Means said owners of buildings on the square are not thinking along the same lines as the city, but will take any tenant to pay the bills.
Mr. Sharpe said the city is now starting to set aside money that will be used to possibly purchase land on the square. If the city is able to assemble land along the east side of the square, it might be able to direct developers to build in a historically compatible architecture to match the west side.
Mr. Yaney cautioned that anytime more restrictions for development are placed on a property, the greater the likelihood that it will take longer to develop.
“The important thing is to get people to the square,” Mr. Yaney said. “Five or six empty storefronts is not the right answer.”
Mr. Mahr said his company will focus on the underserved needs of the community. Bringing that business to Chardon will increase foot traffic for all businesses.