Main Street Manager and Business Recruitment

One of the goals important to board members of a Main Street program is business recruitment. I know that many board members feel that the culmination and result of the main street effort should be to bring in more new stores to the downtown. Recruiting makes your town more vital and helps to diversify the business mix. This is a good goal but it is not an easy goal to attain. 

One of the first tools that I always want to use is the Inventory of Space in the downtown. If you are able to inventory and then classify what businesses you have you will get a real good idea of what is lacking just by looking at the list. The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) is the standard used by Federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments for the purpose of collecting, analyzing, and publishing statistical data related to the U.S. business economy. Getting the businesses classified by NAICS is always one of the first things that I do when I arrive in a town.

Getting the NACIS codes for the existing businesses is always a good idea because it not only helps you identify the gaps in your store mix, but it also puts you in touch with the retention portion of business recruitment. Keeping what you have is an important part of your recruitment/retention effort. There are times businesses have a problem that can be helped by technical assistance from someone like the Service Core Of Retired Executives (SCORE) or the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which can be facilitated by the Main Street Manager.

In some cases there are grants that are available for a market analysis and it is good to do a market analysis to see what store mix is compatible with your economic development strategy. In a previous column I had stressed the importance of creating an economic development strategy… a concise one-page document that outlines what you would like to accomplish in economic restructuring. If there is not enough money to do a market analysis, there are ways that you can do it yourself. The Pennsylvania Downtown Center used to have a template for doing such analysis and I am sure they would be willing to forward some of the information if asked.

Some of it is common sense. What will work in your town or what will not work in your town is not actually brain surgery. Sometimes what works in your downtown might not work if the rent is too high or the building is in the wrong location, but those are decisions for the retailer to make and not for the Main Street Association to decide upon. The manager should be showing the full spectrum of options to anyone seeking to locate in the downtown. Of course there are some people who need only a finite amount of space, which will limit options, but for the most part the Main Street Manager is not married to a property but instead seeking to recruit to the downtown as a whole. They will be adding another part to an existing whole by potentially filling a hole in the downtown, not only by securing the space rental, but also securing the use for the downtown.

The object is to cast as wide of a net as possible. There will need to be a recruitment vehicle to enable potential retailers to locate in a town. Written items like this are a little tricky. You cannot get too homespun when you are designing the information that will be sent out or delivered to someone interested in locating in a town. One never knows who is going to be reading the recruitment data so it needs to be kept interesting but factual.

Packages can be assembled using a general narrative, possibly some newspaper articles, some basic demographic information and whatever else one feels is appropriate to tell the story of your downtown. A packet with a goals and objectives may be a little too much for some people, so try to be factual but keep it light on intense wording with smaller type. Imagine what you would like to see in terms of presentation, keep it positive and omit the letters to the editor that has some frustrated attorney writing about how the parking is bad or the streets dirty.

Once you have you recruitment piece together you can use it in a number of ways.  There are Chambers of Commerce and real estate offices that also deal with recruitment. Do not be afraid to share your information. People are there to help in many cases and are welcoming to items that they feel can help them do their job or earn a commission.  A short discussion with the Chamber Executive or the realtors in your town could go a long way in securing more exposure for your packet. 

Some Main Street Managers go door to door to try to get people to locate in a downtown. I have never thought that was a good use of time. I remember the merchants in Phoenixville coming to me and telling me the people from another town were coming to Phoenixville and trying to recruit them… they wanted me to go to their town and recruit their merchants. Unless it is a qualified lead going door to door in a downtown is a job for a realtor, not a Main Street Manager, or maybe some sort of strategic partnership. I look at the time involved, the expense of transportation; meals and the like and then I look at the lean Main Street budget. I just never found that I could justify it. In most cases they threw away what you gave them after you left and many times dealing with merchants during business hours could become problematic.

I like to accentuate the good news and have my handout to send out only when people inquire. I also try to make myself available to answer questions about the downtown. I was never really big on having my office on the first floor of a commercial district until I saw what happened in Phoenixville. People were in my office all of the time trying to get information. The word spread rapidly that I was accessible and knowledgeable and things started to take off a little bit in recruiting.

I also like to have a digital copy of many of the articles and recruitment pieces. It is good to have them as a PDF so they are not changed in any manner once you send them out. I like to have a continued follow up once the information is sent out. I courted the Diving Cat Art Studio for like two or three years seeing what was up with the relocation of the studio. Some of our best restaurants were walk-ins off the street. In Phoenixville on one First Friday, two Irish guys came in and told me they wanted to open an Irish Pub and Molly Maguire’s was born. I gave them a packet and got a follow up number and e-mail and I was in the recruiting business.

Once you have the story out there, it is the personal touch that gets it done. No one wants to hear that this is wrong, or that is not the best. If there is a positive light associated with the town you have created that reality. As I always say, “you are what you eat”… keep it upbeat. The downtown manager is there partially as the town’s salesperson and if there is an aura of accomplishment and momentum, people want to be part of it.