Bill Gavin”s Highway 45 merchant association is moving forward, but both he and the organization will do well to practice patience.
The Ward 6 Councilman publicized plans in December to form a coalition of business people located along Highway 45 which would resemble Columbus Main Street. Fee-based membership will entitle businesses to a voice within the organization as it strives to attract more businesses, promote existing businesses through advertising and special events, and beautify the city”s most traveled thoroughfare.
After sitting on the idea through the Christmas shopping season, Gavin has tabbed Leigh Mall property manager Gail Culpepper to spearhead the association. Culpepper won”t necessarily be the leader of the organization when and if it”s formed, but is responsible for getting it off the ground.
“I”ve always wanted to get every retail business on 45 involved because there”s so much emphasis placed on downtown,” said Culpepper.
The next step is gauging the interest of businesses up and down 45 as well as busy intersecting streets such as 18th Avenue North and Wilkins Wise Road, where the Lock and Dam and Columbus Marina are located. The Lock and Dam is a potential special event host site, as is Propst Park.
Culpepper will catalogue as many businesses and addresses as possible before mailing fliers requesting feedback regarding the association, which she is tentatively referring to as the North Columbus Retail Commission, although the name may change. The commission will be billed as an opportunity for businesses to network and share ideas on a regular basis with the common goal of attracting more shoppers to Highway 45 and its surrounding business districts.
An initial meeting, possibly in March, will be arranged to discuss the commission”s structure, fees and further goals.
Similar associations in nearby Tupelo are attempting to do the same thing. Tupelo Ward 3 City Councilman Jim Newell helped found a merchant association along an approximate three-mile stretch of South Gloster Street one year ago. That organization, he says, took three months to elect officers and just recently seated a board of directors.
“The biggest struggle we”re having is to become established as a recognized organization,” said Newell. “We”ve had discussions whether to go under the Community Development Foundation (an economic development group based in Tupelo), the CREATE Foundation or start a 501(c) nonprofit. We”re still struggling with that one.”
The CREATE Foundation was ruled out because it only works with charitable organizations. Newell says the merchant”s association will eventually charge a fee of its members but hasn”t implemented one yet, thus necessitating grants.
“But in order to get grants or funding you”ve got to be recognized as a 501(c) or a business group,” he said.
The South Gloster group was formed under similar circumstances as the proposed 45 commission. Newell said the area was plagued by infrastructure problems and business owners felt all of the city”s assistance was going north to the Barnes Crossing Mall district and downtown Tupelo. One of the main differences, he says, downtown has the 20-year-old Tupelo Main Street Association on its side.
“We”re in the infancy stage of where Main Street was 20 years ago. They”ve got a powerful voice in getting all the resources. It”s time for another part of the city to get some,” he said.
But it hasn”t always been that way. Debbie Brangenburg, director of Tupelo Main Street for the past 20 years, says a determined grass roots effort had to be maintained for years to get the program rolling.
“It”s a marathon, not a sprint,” said Brangenburg. “It”s comprehensive. Incremental.”
Tupelo Main Street now covers 47 blocks with 267 participating properties. It”s helped leverage $88 million in building permits alone and $2 in private investment for every $1 supplied by the city. It organizes business promotions and special events to recruit more businesses and pay for cleaning, landscaping and road and sidewalk repair.
To obtain longevity, Brangenburg says merchants have to agree to disagree on some issues and continue to work together. The greatest difficulty, she says, is convincing the community to support its efforts and see the organization as worthwhile.
“When you neglect any portion of your community you give the opportunity for decline,” she said. “You have to keep reinvesting in the community to keep the tax base stable.”
Eye on new infrastructure
Culpepper agrees with that sentiment, and she feels Highway 45, as the greatest tax generating section of the city, is entitled to some improvements. She appreciates the city”s effort to incorporate grass and more attractive curbs in front of new businesses like Zaxby”s, but says existing businesses need some love.
“We”re as much, if not more, of what the city gets in revenue. One day I envision 45 looking just like the Riverwalk with new light poles and landscaping,” she said.
However, beautification is one of the who-gets-it problems. If a festival is to be held, who”s parking lot gets to host? If new curbs and grassy medians are to be constructed, who gets them?
With regard to festivals, Culpepper hopes holding them at neutral sites like the Lock and Dam or Propst Park will settle the debate. Gavin pictures retailers setting up mobile displays at events such as fishing tournaments.
Culpepper envisions concerts and fundraising events “not copying Market Street but similar for 45.”
As far as beautification, she says that will be something for the board of directors to work out. The city will also weigh in since it owns the easements along 45.
Gavin is hoping the whys will outweigh the why nots as merchants decide whether or not to give the commission a chance. He foresees special promotions like tax-free weekends attracting customers to participating businesses as well as gas stations and restaurants.
Culpepper, too, sees the association as a win-win, even if just for networking and cooperation purposes. She says the incoming T.J. Maxx owners contacted her about locating in the mall, but she didn”t have enough space for the store. So she sent them to the building next door where the former Goody”s clothing store was vacant.
“People come in (to the mall) to see if I have vacancies with the new hotels being built. They want to know what other retail people around me are doing. I can”t always answer that. But if we band together, if we work together, we can make good things happen. There are a lot of frontage buildings empty on 45 and there should be none of that,” said Culpepper.
But don”t cry for the mall because it couldn”t accommodate T.J. Maxx.
“We just put $500,000 into the Burke”s Outlet sales floor expansion. We”re right in the middle of another $500,000 for Hibbett”s. We put in the Children”s Place at the end of 2010 and we”ve got four letters of intent we”re not allowed to disclose right now,” said Culpepper.
Her theory is the 30-mile radius surrounding Columbus is home to enough customers for every business in town. And to that end, she believes those businesses are better served cooperating rather than competing.
On the other hand, not every city needs merchant associations or a Main Street association. Thanks in part to the University of Alabama”s presence, Tuscaloosa saw its lone merchant association fizzle out three years ago and hasn”t missed a beat. Economic Development Coordinator Teresa Lewis points to the city”s “tremendous urban renewal” project being undertaken downtown, which includes a new 500-seat amphitheater and a 450-space parking facility with room for restaurants to move right into the building.
The Highway 45 merchant association may never get the chance to be obsolete.
“It may fall apart. We may not have enough participation. But I have high hopes,” said Culpepper.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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