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City hears economic development presentations

Posted: July 3, 2017 4:30 p.m.
Updated: July 4, 2017 1:00 a.m.

During Camden City Council’s June 27 work session, members heard two presentations regarding economic development. The first focused on Camden’s Main Street SC program, with Beppie LeGrand, manager of the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s (MASC) Main Street program, and Eric Budds, MASC’s executive vice president. They presented initial suggestions based on work done so far by Camden Main Street SC Manager Kat Spadacenta.

After reporting that a baseline assessment of Main Street SC needs had been completed, LeGrand said Camden is already well-recognized as one of the state’s “premiere communities” thanks to its focus on the equine industry and historic preservation. She also said communication among city staff as well as downtown merchants and property owners is important and that there needs to be a “seamless communication strategy” so everyone knows what is being planned for downtown.

“We also want to improve your image so that you’re always one of the best of the best,” LeGrand said.

She suggested focusing on business-generating activities, such as events and festivals, as well as group advertising, to give marketing efforts a “bigger punch.”

LeGrand also said the MASC’s report points out needs for additional signage enhancements; coming up with designated areas in which to display public art; and “alleyway treatments,” particularly the alley leading to the Town Green, to beautify or otherwise enhance those walkways.

“In our report, you will see one of the photographs we’ve included is from Hartsville and how they’ve activated one of their alleys now called Mantissa Row with lots of plants … lights (and) a beautiful archway, and it’s very inviting and we believe we can do the same thing here,” she said.

LeGrand also brought up the ideas of working with property owners to install “visual treatments” in vacant storefronts and coming up with a façade master plan.

Budds focused on the economic vitality aspects of the Main Street program, saying downtown should look primarily at continuing to attract a mix of retail, restaurants and service-oriented businesses. He recommended building on existing resources and programs -- such as market analyses and plans, and the city’s business incentives -- and then concentrate, for now, on a small downtown area.

Budds said downtown Camden is defined by a 36-block, 400-plus-acre area, but suggested the city focus on a considerably smaller core area and then expand its marketing efforts from there. He also said the city should update its market analysis and share it with existing businesses to give them a chance to expand or diversify product lines.

In addition, Budds said that coming up with downtown housing is “extremely important.”

“The presence of housing creates additional energy and expanded local market and, specifically, we think that should be a diverse mix of housing options -- second-floor housing, townhomes and cluster cottages,” Budds said. “Your downtown does not have as many second-floor buildings as a lot of downtowns. So, in order to get the density of housing, the townhomes and cluster housing will need to be an option and, fortunately, you have a great deal of vacant and underutilized property in the immediate downtown area.”

Budds also suggested maximizing available city, state and federal incentive programs to further entice businesses not only to come to Camden, but rehabilitate and move into historic spaces. He said this should especially concentrate on incentives that offer property tax rebates or “a break” in terms of historic preservation assessment.

“It’s (also) essential that the individual be able to capture both the municipal millage and the county millage, so we would encourage you to pursue Kershaw County joining you in offering those tax-based incentives. By adding their millage, you increase the benefit of the value by 75 percent,” he said.

As part of this effort, Budds recommended that the city create a tax-credit consulting team to deal with the different layers of local, state, federal and other types of incentives. He also suggesting coming up with a full inventory of buildings to identify those properties the city believes would qualify for any or all of the incentives.

Also during the June 27 work session, Lacy Beasley, president and COO of Retail Strategies of Birmingham, Ala., spoke to council about her firm. Beasley focused on another piece of the economic development puzzle: bringing national brands to Camden.

She said she was “thrilled” to learn about the Main Street SC program and she, Tourism/Economic Development Director Suzi Sale and City Manager Mel Pearson all suggested Retail Strategies’ work could complement Main Street SC as a “multi-pronged” approach to economic development.

Beasley touted her firm as a “matchmaker,” identifying those brands -- especially retailers and restaurants -- that are not already in the community and enticing them to come to Camden. Retail Strategies’ approach employs market analyses, including an inventory of buildings and vacant spaces, including shopping centers; strategic planning, including a retail recruitment plan; coming up with a marketing guide the firm can take to trade shows and other places to recruit potential companies; and a Web-based reporting platform that includes all these pieces for both the city to track and potential companies to view.

“We plant a lot of seeds. They don’t always come to fruition immediately, but we stay very persistent in that prospecting,” she said.

Beasley pointed to the city of Laurens, here in South Carolina, as an example of a client community Retail Strategies has worked with, along with Tulluhoma, Tenn., and the North Carolina cities of Granite Falls, Lumberton and Morganton. She said Laurens is one of eight cities in South Carolina the firm has as clients.

Camden Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford asked whether Retail Strategies could help Camden attract a grocery store to the downtown area. Beasley said that “takes a little longer” and that her firm is seeing more successes with restaurants.

“The industry’s really changing,” Beasley said of grocery chains. “We eat out more than we buy groceries now. That trend changed last year, in March 2016; the first time there were actually more purchases in restaurants than in grocery stores.”

In fact, Beasley said there are now “groceraunts” where grocers are partnering with restaurants to set up in their stores in order to retain existing customers and attract new ones.

In response to a question from Councilman Stephen Smoak, Beasley said it is a challenge to attract major brands with normally large floor spaces to a downtown area like Camden’s. Councilwoman Joanna Craig suggested some retailers are shrinking their floor space; Beasley agreed, mentioning Target’s CityTarget and TargetExpress stores.

Councilman Jeffrey Graham noted that some major brands have come or are coming to Camden, but have concentrated at Springdale Plaza and I-20 Exit 98.

“If the big brands are what we’re after, then we’ve got to look at options and this is, indeed, one of those options,” Graham said of Retail Strategies’ potential contribution.

Beasley said one of the things her firm has had success in doing is bringing in developers and retailers to rehabilitate vacant or underutilized shopping centers. Following Beasley’s presentation, Pearson said while Main Street SC would focus exclusively on downtown -- starting with a core area -- Retail Strategies could focus on the other areas of I-20 Exit 98, Dusty Bend, East DeKalb Street and the recently annexed former Bi-Lo shopping center.

“You do need to take a multi-pronged approach,” Pearson told council. “Main Street is not a recruiting effort. By being successful, we will attract business downtown, but to call it a recruiting program would be a mistake.”

Later that evening, during council’s regular meeting, Bloomsbury Inn owner Katherine Brown spoke during public forum. Brown pointed out she was the only business owner to attend the work session to hear the Main Street and Retail Strategies presentations.

“There were no other developers, people vested in our community -- no builders, no shareholders, no downtown business representation whatsoever,” she said. “The question is, is that a lack of communication with those people who should be invested, or is it a lack of interest?”

She called it “very unfortunate” that the city is “trying so hard” to move forward and yet there is a lack of either communication or interest to bring people together.

“The second piece that was almost touched on, but I’m bold enough to stand here and say, is that our community should never think, feel or act in any manner to veto any business that desires to come here. There should never be a situation in a vibrant community where there are entities that are opposed to anything or everything,” Brown said.

She also said businesses should not try to be the exclusive purveyors of their goods or services. Brown said she and her husband want more independent lodging in the community and have reached out to others opening businesses like theirs.

“As business owners in this community, that is what each and every one of us should be doing,” she said.

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