September 12, 2018 10:42:33 AM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
A Tupelo-based firm with Golden Triangle ties will lead retail development efforts in Columbus for at least the next year.
Councilmen unanimously selected The Retail Coach from among five companies vying for the contract during a special-call meeting Tuesday at City Hall.
Columbus will pay The Retail Coach $35,000 for the one-year contract with the option to renew it for $25,000 per subsequent year.
"We're totally thrilled to have this opportunity," Will Kline, project manager for The Retail Coach, said after the vote. "Columbus has been on our radar for quite some time, and we're prepared to start tomorrow if that's what the city wants."
Kline, along with the company's retail recruitment specialist, Caroline Hearnsberger of Starkville, pitched their services to councilmen last week -- promising to identify the best uses for vacant properties and under-utilized retail corridors and aggressively recruit businesses to locate to the city. They said they also will work to bolster existing, particularly locally owned, businesses.
Started in 2000, Kline said The Retail Coach has worked with 500 communities in 32 states, bringing to them a combined total of 3.5 million square feet of new retail development and more than $600 million in tax revenue.
On Tuesday, Kline told The Dispatch plenty of opportunities exist for bringing new retail to Columbus.
"Early on, when we started developing our pitch, we researched the area and its possibilities," he said. "We found a lot of (retail) brokers, hotel developers and restaurants who are interested in potentially locating here. We have a good foundation to start from."
City councilmen in August decided to pursue hiring a firm specifically for retail development. They ultimately opted to discontinue the city's $100,000 annual contribution to the Golden Triangle Development LINK -- which it had paid for 10 years for economic development services, including retail and industrial -- because a majority of the council felt the LINK had not focused enough on retail recruitment for the city. The LINK still has a contract with Lowndes County.
Other retail development firms who pitched to the city included NaviRetail of Memphis, Tennessee, Next Site of Birmingham, Alabama, Buxton Company of Dallas-Fort Worth and Brick + Mortar of Tupelo.
Earlier this year, Brick + Mortar, for a $15,000 contract with the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce, completed a study that identified $1 billion in retail leakage from the Columbus area to other cities, such as Tupelo and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Councilmen often cited that study as both a reason for leaving the LINK and for the city pursuing a retail development firm.
City leaders expect results
Mayor Robert Smith told The Dispatch he could have supported the council selecting any of the five applicant firms, but he believes The Retail Coach offers a strong combination of experience and accessibility.
"With them being based in Tupelo and their retail recruitment specialist living in Starkville, they will have no problem reporting to the council regularly and being here in the city as needed," Smith said. "I don't expect anything to happen overnight, but hopefully in a five-to-six-month span, we'll start seeing positive results."
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said it might take a bit longer -- maybe 18 months to two years for any tangible impact of the partnership to take hold -- but his expectations are high.
"I'm expecting results," Gavin said. "We took a big chance here. So, it's got to pay off. ... I think all these firms do about the same thing, but we wanted to get someone who would be aggressive on our behalf. I think most of us had narrowed it to two or three favorites, but we all could agree on (The Retail Coach)."
Stephen Jones, councilman for Ward 5, voted for the hire on Tuesday, though he had repeatedly urged caution in previous interviews and told The Dispatch last week he wasn't ready to vote for any of the firms.
On Tuesday, he said he changed his mind to support the majority of the board.
"Technically, I still think we rushed it a little bit," Jones said after the meeting. "Anyone you go with, it's a gamble. Hopefully, these guys will get in here working, and we'll see some changes."
In other business Tuesday, the council approved a city budget of $24,077,373.82 for Fiscal Year 2019, which begins Oct. 1.
Though the budget is more than $238,000 less than 2018 appropriations, it includes a property tax increase of .9 mills. Of that, .75 is the second of three hikes that will fund Columbus Redevelopment Authority efforts to redevelop Burns Bottom.
The budget also included $772,800 in outside contributions -- mostly to nonprofits -- which is a decrease of more than $97,000 from what the city gave in 2018.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.