Article Comment 

Link working 19 retail deals


Jason Browne



Retail corporations and store owners eyeing cities share a lot in common with the people strolling through the businesses they own. Sometimes they''re just looking. Sometimes they say they''re just looking when they have something specific in mind. And sometimes they come right out and say what they want. 


In any case, the staff at the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link plays the role of salespeople. 


The majority of The Link''s work is focused on industrial development because, as Joe Max Higgins, chief executive officer of The Link, points out, when an area attracts jobs, "that creates rooftops and the rest takes care of itself." 


At least, that''s the quick explanation. Higgins and Brenda Lathan, The Link''s vice president of economic development, know attracting retail business is "a much more complex animal than recruiting industry." 


Some deals are homegrown, such as Columbus developer Mark Castleberry''s plans to build two hotels on 18th Avenue North with an accompanying plaza of restaurants. 


Castleberry says plans are progressing, but expects some deals to "fall apart at the last minute." 


Such is the nature of retail. But Castleberry believes a boost in traffic from the hotels will invigorate the area. 


"Success begets success. Retailers are attracted to a market where there''s already successful retail," he said. "We''re always happy when there are developments occurring and retailers coming in. Even if they''re not on our properties." 




Opportunity for growth 


The Link team agrees Castleberry''s developments represent Columbus'' best short-term opportunity for retail growth. 


"There''s a good chance before Mark gets his hotels built we''ll have a majority of those (vacant) sites filled," said Higgins. 


When it comes to recruiting development from out of town, or out of state, the process gets tricky. Multiple factors must align and remain aligned until a deal gets done; not a small order when you consider how long the average retailer/city courtship lasts. 


"There''s generally a three-year period from the time (businesses) start kicking tires to the time they locate," said Lathan. 


The first step in the process seems obvious enough: Businesses must be in the market for new locations. 




Sluggish economy 


The economy has instilled a sense of apprehension into businesses not seen in years. Even deals that seemed done have fallen through. 


Such was the case with a big-box department store which was to be the second "anchor" store for the proposed University Park Mall, near the intersection of Highway 45 South and Highway 82, in Lowndes County. When the economy soured, that chain pulled out, ultimately killing plans for the mall, and has not been heard from at trade shows for 18 months. 


The loss of the mall also cost the area national electronics, sporting goods and clothing chains which planned to set up around the anchor stores. 


Higgins says the proposed CottonMill Marketplace business and residence plaza in Starkville -- at Mississippi State University''s Cooley building -- has hit a similar stall due to the economy. 


Mark Nicholas, owner of Nicholas Properties, the developer for the project, said the CottonMill project is slow due to the economy. But they continue to work with MSU to secure the property, he said. 




Eyeing Columbus 


Lathan is maintaining relationships with brokers and representatives for many of the retailers which were eyeing Columbus before the economic downturn and says a "lot of people" remain interested.  


"We''re working probably 19 retail deals right now," she said. 


However, the courting process will have to begin again after the economy recovers with numbers reflecting the post-recession demographics of the area. 


Those deals, she said, may not pay off until 2012, and that''s assuming everyone keeps their mouths shut. 


Everyone is excited about the prospect of new businesses, whether as a potential consumer or as a beneficiary of the tax base. But Higgins says Columbus has a bad habit of scaring off retailers who value confidence above all else with its hyperactive rumor mill. 




Bad news travels quickly 


The tips come from various sources: Over-eager city councilmen, sign makers, employees in the building department. And once word gets out to the blogs and the coffee shops, retailers stop calling. 


"We''re a small town, but we''re worse than most small towns," said Higgins. "We (at The Link) are playing offense and defense at the same time." 


He says Columbus has enough trouble just convincing businesses to consider locating here. 


"Quit shooting people in bars and we''ll get some retail," said Higgins. "We''ve got a situation where we''re creating jobs but nobody wants to live here because they''re scared." 


Higgins says negative news travels quickly due to the Internet, and retailers are constantly watching. In addition to headlines, they''re tracking demographic numbers to determine how many people and what kind of people will comprise their potential customer bases. 




Population decrease 


For the past 30 years, Columbus has seen its population steadily decreasing from approximately 30,000 citizens in 1980 to approximately 23,000 in 2009. Starkville, on the other hand, has seen a steady increase over that time, recently overtaking Columbus in population according to census data. 


However, Starkville hasn''t stolen Columbus'' retail power by a long shot. Higgins says economic data shows Columbus totaled $1 billion in retail sales in 2009. Starkville totaled $529 million in 2009. 


"There''s a perception Starkville is just running away and leaving Columbus," said Higgins. 


Columbus was down $34 million in sales from 2008, but Higgins says $32 million of that was in automobile sales. Columbus, one of the state''s major car selling points, sold $135 million in automobiles in 2009. 




Aggressive retail campaign 


Still, Higgins and Lathan say they''re constantly under pressure from officials to attract retailers. The Link contracts with the city for $100,000 annually to work on retail. 


"City leaders accuse The Link of spending all its time on industrial projects," says Higgins. 


He says the city could help its own cause by repairing roads near Leigh Mall, the "most valuable piece of property in Lowndes County." 


Property owners also play a part. Higgins says many vacant buildings along the prime retail real estate of Highway 45 are destined to remain vacant due to exorbitant leases and refusal to allow some buildings to be subdivided. 




Getting on the same page 


Other businesses have lease agreements which prevent direct competition from opening in close proximity. And nobody is interested in the area north of Bluecutt Road because it''s too far from the intersection of Highway 45 North and Highway 82. 


Columbus has averaged 13 retail business openings for each of the past three years, with 12 already in 2010. Higgins says more are possible if local officials and property owners get on the same page and begin looking out for the good of the community. If the city can provide a clean, safe environment and local schools provide an educated workforce, he says Columbus is primed to grow when the economy improves.




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Reader Comments

Article Comment Jeffery commented at 4/28/2010 11:43:00 AM:

Columbus' population would show the growth of Starkville and Tupelo if we annexed aggressively as they have the last 30 years, it's a no-brainer city council. Good news overall, signs of a retail breakthrough are clearly on the horizon.


Article Comment Steven commented at 4/28/2010 1:32:00 PM:

Until the people of Columbus make major changes in the people that are elected, nothing will change. I spent 7 years in Columbus and finally had to get out away from the rumor mongering, illiterate, backwater people that refuse to allow the city to grow based on some imagined slight that happen 20 years ago.


Article Comment Cheryl commented at 4/28/2010 1:48:00 PM:

I hope you are able to bring in some of the businesses that are in Tuscaloosa and Tupelo so that you don't have to drive 60 - 80 miles to go shopping.


Article Comment Albert commented at 4/28/2010 3:05:00 PM:

It will take everyone deciding they are just gonna shop Columbus instead of Starkville, Tuscaloose and Tupelo to get Columbus growing and growing we will. Until then...


Article Comment bob commented at 4/28/2010 4:16:00 PM:

How are we going to lure more retail business when some retailers in the area are closing and some are barely holding on? How are we going to lure business if the W closes? Why don't we have a City Master Plan like Starkville or Tupelo? I find this incredible that we don't!! We just put things willy nilly wherever a developer wants it. Why don't we look at making downtown an "enterprise" zone where shoppers would only have to pay 1/2 the current sales tax? I've seen other states do this to revitalizre their historic downtown areas. I can't believe all of the empty shops in downtown Columbus. In a way, I'm glad the mall never worked out at 45 & 82. The current 45 business "strip" would probably look like a ghost town. Start some SERIOUS planning Columbus - PLEASE!!


Article Comment Franny commented at 4/28/2010 5:06:00 PM:

Get the school system fixed, Get them working together as one!!!!!!!!!!! not as City and County, and Columbus will grow.


Article Comment harold commented at 4/29/2010 12:29:00 PM:

The problem with Columbus is that "NO ONE WANTS TO SIT DOWN AND TALK ABOUT THE PROBLEMS". EVERYONE SAYS WE NEED TO ANNEX - but the only thing I have heard was tied into political voting. There are a lot of areas that are already in the City area but are in the county. When we do annex think about what we can service, tax increase and type of housing. Not how the people will vote. One think we do wrong is build up Starkville as being better. Starkville can not hold a light to Columbus. I don't know why Mr.Higgins thinks so much of Starkville. They have very little Industry, no river, no Air Base and no comparison in the layout and beauty of Columbus. Why do we sell our self short. This town has more to offer than any small town I know. The city fights the county and the county fights the city. The CVB wants to be an elite group all its own. Someone needs to call a meeting between all factions and have a heart to heart sit down. Talk about the same things you talk about when you are in "YOUR GROUP". Until the people have the GUTS to talk about the real issues nothing will change. We can not stand stil and do the same-o-same-o and expect it to be "ALL BETTER". THERE SHOULD BE MORE LEADERS IN EACH SECTION OF CITY AND COUNTY GOVERMENT! Everybody talks about how to "FIX" the problem but very few do anything to help. We have had a few good men and women to run for office but they are not enough to turn the tide. Support these people and encourage other good people to run for office. I see 2-3 in the county and 2-3 in the city that want to make this a better place. Tell these people that you appreciate what they do. I know some of these could have sit by and watched us go down but didn't. I THANK the ones that are trying. THERE SEEMS TO BE A LACK OF COMMUNICATION IN MOST AREAS OF CITY-COUNTY GOVERMENT. "PLEASE STEP-UP TO THE PLATE AND HELP".


Article Comment WMJ commented at 4/29/2010 2:59:00 PM:

You people are crazy! What we need is a Giant Soccer field boxed in downtown with no parking to speak of and a nice walking bridge out to a island with rusted out old bars and scrap yards. Problem solved.


Article Comment jim commented at 4/29/2010 3:57:00 PM:



Article Comment AB commented at 4/30/2010 4:14:00 AM:

I think that Columbus will get no where for as long as the City Council cannot even get along with each other in a meeting. Seriously people. How many towns/cities do you hear of where the Mayor and a Councilman get in to a fight in the City Hall? Gee! If we the people of Columbus would ALL get along and stop arguing over the dumbest things about the city and county, then Lowndes County and the City of Columbus could have so much more to offer and look forward to in the future. As for planning, yes, I fully agree that Columbus needs to do a bunch more of that. That goes along with the locations of places as well. I like the idea of the new hotels and such, but- the location planned for that?? Has anyone seen where this is going up yet? I mean can we spell the word TRAFFIC on ADHD? That's exactly what it's going to be. Take a look at the Wal-Mart intersection-- that's one of the WORST intersections, if not the worst already, in Columbus. That's because there's TOO MUCH right there all together. Plan! Plan! Plan! Location! Location! Location! Also, all these abandoned buildings around here- do something with them. I know of several around here that could more than likely just get knocked down. They're taking up space and making OUR TOWN look like TRASH! We're part of the South- let's look more like Southern Beauty- instead of SOUTHERN TRASH! There's sooo much that needs to be done to the south side area's of Columbus- clean it up. I'm venting, but someone had to do it. Columbus could also use an arena for such attractions. Why not just build a mega type arena to house most things? Such as concerts, soccer, basketball, maybe a pool... a nice place for the community to go to and feel comfortable to do some type of activity or to work out on the treadmill's or something? Columbus could use so many fixer-uppers...


Article Comment Andy commented at 4/30/2010 10:02:00 AM:

Albert hit the nail on the head...people have got to decide to start spending there money locally. But in doing so, the local government has a responsibility to plan for the future to provide shopping districts and entertainment districts that will allow us to hold onto our local spenders along with luring in surrounding areas. An in-depth master plan is a must. And I am not familiar with the enterprise zone but you have peaked my interest as a young designer so thanks for throwing that out there. As far as schools go...not real sure how growing our schools will grow our community. Dont get me wrong I am in 100% aggreeance that school systems should be a top priority, but fixing our school system will only allow us to graduate better educated men and women that will in turn leave columbus to find job opportunities. We must PLAN for the future. And as far as the bridge is should only be considered if there is a "Master Plan" for the other side. A costly pedestrian bridge renovation that leads to no destination point is definitely a bad idea.


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