L'burg takes steps to attract retail to town

Friday, January 17, 2014

By Karen Hall


City council members unanimously approved a resolution to seek a USDA Rural Enterprise grant for retail development when they held their monthly meeting Tuesday.

At work session the previous week, Director of Economic Development Greg Lowe explained that the grant would pay almost half of a three-year contract with a company which would perform an up-to-date retail marketing analysis.

The company would produce an analysis of what retail Lewisburg has, what it lacks, and what it needs. It will also then identify retail that might be a good fit for the town. Every retailer has an idea of what it requires for a location to be successful. Lowe explained a lot of this is based on traffic count (number of vehicles passing the location) and drive time (number of people living or working within three to five minutes of the location). It would be unrealistic to meet with retailers whose requirements cannot be met here, but the company Lowe has in mind for the analysis will "recruit on our behalf after they come up with a retail recruitment plan."

"They will concentrate where we have a good chance," added City Manager Randall Dunn. "I think it's a good idea."

"Retail amenities make us more attractive to industry," Lowe said as he tried to convince councilmen to find the city's share of the money for the retail analysis.

"Retail is difficult for us (to recruit)," said Lowe. "It's a different animal."

"We need places for them (workers at the new industries) to spend their money," said Dunn. "I think this will move us a long way toward it. It's a tool."

"I'd like to take some property owners to ICSC," said Lowe. "They're the ones who have to make the deals." ICSC is the International Council of Shopping Centers, "the premier resource for the retail real estate industry," according to their website. They have meetings all over the country, with RECon, the Global Retail Real Estate Convention, coming up in Las Vegas from May 18 to 20.

Discussing the city's financial commitment, which could total $50,000, Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. said, "All that we do here is something of a gamble. If we're going to move forward, we're going to have to make some gambles."

Monday's vote showed that the rest of the councilmen agreed with him.

They also agreed on a resolution authorizing Dunn to enter into a contract with Gobbell Hays Partners Inc., an architecture, engineering and planning firm, to "plan development for renovation/replacement of fire stations."

At the work session councilmen spent some time studying a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service and its Fire Management Consultant Dennis Wolf.

Fire Chief Larry Williams explained that Lewisburg's fire department has made a lot of progress since 2006 and is now in the top 10 percent of all fire departments in the nation.

It is however, "critically understaffed," with many fewer firefighters than necessary. Williams said he deals with this through mutual-aid agreements with volunteer fire departments, paid on-call people, and off-duty personnel he can also call.

"We are getting stretched out," he admitted.

Another problem is that the Industrial Park on the east side of town, and the I-65 Commerce Park to the west, are each more than 1.5 miles -- the distance that allows optimal response time -- from the main fire hall.

The fire hall on Water Street is a problem in itself. The building is 51 years old, and started life as the police station. It's not energy efficient, is barely big enough to house today's larger equipment, and could not be used as a disaster command center.

The MTAS recommendation, Williams said, was to replace it, with a new 11,915 square foot fire hall, designed for the purpose. Before councilmen could cringe too much at the price of such a building, $1,392,000 or more, Dunn pointed out the USDA has advantageous loan and grant programs.

"They're almost begging us to take the money," he said. "The interest is minimal, and the first two years you don't have to make payments. I think we've got a lot of opportunity."

Councilmen also approved a resolution authorizing Dunn to seek a company to give the city grant identification services.

"It's important we explore all possibilities on a grant-by-grant basis," he said at the work session. "We can select a grant identification firm. They go through the federal register, identify grants we could qualify for, and send a list every week with a summary. This way you find out about a grant within four days of it being announced, instead of at the last minute, when it's almost too late to apply. It costs less than $1,000 a month. I think it's a good investment."

Councilmen unanimously agreed with that, too, and Tuesday's meeting, even with the presentation of service awards to city employees, lasted less than 30 minutes.