Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lively audience hears from market-study consultant, has many questions and observations

By Dick Yarmy
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

A lively group of about 30 citizens attended a forum last night launching the state-funded Midway Market Study. The forum featured a presentation by Joshua Bloom, right, a principal of Community Land Use and Economics Group (CLUE), a Virginia consulting firm Midway Renaissance picked to do the study.

The meeting in the Midway Christian Church fellowship hall started on a light note when Bloom, startled by a close-up flash from Woodford Sun columnist John McDaniel’s camera, recoiled like a deer caught in the headlights, pointed to McDaniel and said: “Delete that!” (Photo by Dick Yarmy)

The ice was broken, and Bloom continued with his presentation, which included: A brief history of downtowns, and how they have changed; how, according to his group’s findings, surviving downtowns need to find their own economic niche; and how downtown vacancies don’t necessarily mean something is wrong, but do signal a change in the business landscape.

“People create sales that create rent that support the buildings,” Bloom said, explaining the CLUE premise that downtowns are basically a real estate equation, and the key to success is in getting the right mix of businesses. He said downtown areas like Midway have the opportunity to offer housing, and rentals of upstairs apartments reduce pressure on business owners by adding additional income.

Bloom explained the importance of attracting a solid customer base of workers, visitors and residents. “Who’s good for Midway? And how do we attract more people?” he asked.

Bloom then outlined the study CLUE designed for Midway and what it could do for the town, by analyzing downtown consumer behavior and marrying the results with a survey of present businesses’ strategies. Analysis of the data is to produce a market strategy for Midway, defining the stakeholder roles for everyone involved.

“The right direction for Midway has to come at the intersection of community desire and market potential,” said Bloom, stressing the importance of individual desire and cooperation.

The audience, made up of downtown business people, Renaissance committee members, Midway council members and interested citizens, had several questions and observations.

“Have you seen a precipitous drop in downtown businesses in other towns?” Jim Mannis asked.

Bloom said it would be an overreach to give a definitive answer with so many factors involved, such as the mix of the businesses in other towns, changes in buying habits, and changes in marketing strategy –– antique stores moving their businesses online, for example.

Recession is a state of mind, downtown clothier Crittenden Rawlings said. “There is no recession in Midway, is an attitude,” he said. “I’ve traveled and worked all over the country and I’m very happy to have my store here in Midway,” he said.

Rawlings told of a clothier who called a meeting of his employees and announced that the word “recession” was not allowed in the shop. Crittenden said he could document the fact that the shop’s sales figures continued to remain strong and showed no signs of a recession.

City Council Member Joy Arnold asked how Midway Station, the failed industrial park that is supposed to be redeveloped commercially and residentially, would figure into the study. “I visited it today,” said Bloom, “ but that’s a whole other animal and not part of our study.”

Audience comments and questions ranged from specifics about the mechanics of the market study to ideas and strategies for existing and proposed downtown businesses.

Rawlings suggested that Midway consider certain zoning regulations and absence of conventional commercial signage like those in Middleburg, Va., heart of Virginia’s horse country, to add charm to the town.

As ideas continued to surface, a voice in the crowd said: “You never know if unless you actually try,” capturing some of the “can-do” spirit of the audience.

“You can create a vibrant economy,” said Bloom, challenging the audience. He explained that downtowns offer a different kind of service than shopping malls and shopping centers, so business owners will have to figure out how to serve and support their customer base.

Picking up on the theme of personal challenge, Midway Renaissance President Randy Thomas reminded the audience that although the survey was for downtown businesses, citizens also need to figure out their own role in the process.

Thomas suggested that everyone ask: What’s in it for me? What do we want? How can we help make it happen? His comment triggered comments about the need to support Railroad Drug and Old Time Soda Fountain, the downtown pharmacy that opened a few months ago.

“We need to buy there,” one said. “They sell medicine at the same price as Kroger, and give good customer service as well,” offered another. “And don’t forget you can get ice cream at the same time,” a comment that promoted some laughs and seemed to strike home.

“We have to change our thinking,” said Marcie Christensen, manager of Midway Renaissance. “ It’s not, ‘I’ll go shopping to get what I need.’ It has to be, ‘I’ll go downtown and see what they’ve got, so I know what I need.’” (See clarification from Christensen in comments section of this story.)

UPDATE: Railroad Drug owner and pharmacist Ken Glass said today that his store is actually a bright spot in the downtown economy. "We are ahead of where we expected to be at this time," he said in an e-mail. "My wife and I are appreciative of all the support we've received to this point, and plan be here a long, long time."

Christensen reminded the audience that the Renaissance website is a vehicle to track the progress of the study, and invited the audience to help with the consumer interviews scheduled for April.

1 comment:

Marcie Christensen said...

Great article! If I may correct a quote, I think what I said was "It’s not, ‘I’ll go shopping to get what I need.’ It has to be, I’ll go downtown and see what they’ve got, so I know what I want to need.” :)