December 6, 2018 10:58:20 AM
As of Wednesday, Will Kline was approaching the halfway mark of the first phase of his plan to rebuild Columbus' reputation as the retail center for the Golden Triangle.
Kline, a project manager with The Retail Coach in Tupelo, officially began his work Oct. 22, when the retail development firm signed a one-year contract with the city.
In an interview with The Dispatch Wednesday, Kline said the first 60 to 90 days of his team's work is focused on identifying and profiling the customer base for the Columbus market. After that, he said, his team will generate a target list of 25 to 30 retailers to "aggressively recruit" to the city.
"We're in the very early stages of the market analysis portion," Kline said. "We're trying to determine how far people are willing to drive from any direction to shop here. What is the break point between Columbus and Tupelo where people are willing to drive to one or the other? We're doing the same for between Columbus and Tuscaloosa (Alabama) and Columbus and Starkville."
So far, Kline said the numbers look strong.
He indicated Columbus boasts a "primary trade area" of people who shop in the city regularly of about 60,000. The secondary market -- consumers who shop in Columbus monthly to quarterly -- exceeds 185,000, he said.
"We're also trying to determine what kind of people make up this 60,000 and 185,000," he said. "Are they people with law degrees who drive BMWs or do they drive Ford F-150s and work at Paccar?"
Kline shared those numbers with media members, business owners and other community stakeholders -- including downtown merchants and members of the Columbus Redevelopment Authority board -- in a series of meetings Wednesday. He said communication and gathering feedback from stakeholders is a vital part of developing a working recruiting strategy.
"There are so many assets here, from the Columbus Air Force Base and MUW (Mississippi University for Women), to even the city's proximity to Mississippi State University (in Starkville)," he said. "Columbus is the principal city, as far as retail, in the Golden Triangle. Our goal ultimately is to tell that story and paint a picture for national retailers that shows, 'You need to be here, and here's why.'"
Retail prospects, target areas
For big-box and mid-sized retail, Kline's team is focused on recruiting to corridors on Highway 45, for the fledgling mixed-use development underway at the former Lee Middle School on Military Road and in east Columbus.
He said there's great potential for clothing and grocery stores, as well as expanding the city's restaurant profile through landing national chains.
Though e-commerce has hit brick-and-mortar retail hard in recent years, Kline said the strongest companies are those who have expanded both on the internet and with more physical locations.
"That list is by no means short," Kline said. "We believe brick-and-mortar is alive and well. ... Let me put it this way. One thing I haven't figured out how to do is take my wife on a date to Amazon."
The Retail Coach also wants to be an ally, Kline said, to what he called a "fantastic downtown" in Columbus.
"That's a huge piece of what we're doing, trying to determine how we can benefit downtown," he said. "In some places, downtown is very separated from the retail hub of the city. In Columbus, though, downtown is very close to Highway 45, so I think there's definitely a 'gateway component' there. First, though, we want to hear about the work (downtown merchants) are currently doing and what their vision is so we can be a part of that."
Barbara Bigelow, director for Main Street Columbus, which specifically advocates for downtown businesses, said she was impressed Wednesday with Kline's knowledge and his willingness to answer property and business owners' questions honestly.
"He's got a big job because he has to serve the whole city, but I am confident he will include downtown in this process," Bigelow said. "I know I will give him all the support I can from this office."
While Kline promises an aggressive approach to recruiting, he cautions tangible results might come slowly.
"We're in the first inning of the first game of what I hope to be a seven-game series," Kline said. "... Even once we get a retailer to sign a letter of intent to locate or build, it may take up to five years for that concept to start selling shoes, steaks or coffee."
The city is paying The Retail Coach $38,000 for its first year of services, with the option to renew the contract annually for a lower rate. The Retail Coach has been around for 18 years, working with cities like Clinton, Vicksburg and Ripley. Kline said 88 percent of its municipal clients renew for at least a second year.
Kline said "success" would be bringing in enough new retail development to significantly increase the city's sales and ad valorem tax base.
"At this point, I don't know exactly what that number is," he said.
Mayor Robert Smith said he's been impressed with the firm, and Kline, so far. He added he is confident The Retail Coach will bring results.
"It's not going to be a quick fix," he said. "It's going to take some time, but any new business would be a return on our investment. (Kline) is very aggressive, and he's already reached out to potential retailers who might be interested in coming here. ... I feel really good about it."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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