Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Seeking Nominations for MetLife Foundation Community-Police Partnership Awards Program

LISC and MetLife are seeking nominations for The Metlife Foundation Community-Police Partnership Awards. This award program is a great opportunity for communities to recieve recognition for their work improving community safety. I really enjoy reading about previous award winners, many of whom are excellent real life examples of how commercial district managers can address safety issues that may be affecting the viability of their districts. For more information about the awards and for an overview of past winners, click here. The submission deadline for 2011 applications is Feb. 28.

The awards are the result of a partnership between the MetLife Foundation and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to recognize, sustain and share the work of innovative partnerships between community groups and police to promote neighborhood safety and revitalization.

Awardees will receive:
  •  Monetary grants ranging from $15,000 to $25,000.
  • Case studies about award-winning partnerships will be disseminated throughout the community development and law enforcement industries.
Cash grants will be awarded in the following two categories:
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Awards (Six at $15,000-25,000): These awards celebrate exemplary collaboration between community groups and police that yields crime reduction as well as economic development outcomes, such as real estate development, business attraction and job growth.
  • Special Strategy Awards (Five at $15,000): Community and police partners who have achieved significant accomplishments in one of the following areas will receive awards: Applied Technology, Aesthetics and Greenspace Improvement, Diversity Inclusion & Integration, Drug Market Disruption, Gang Prevention & Youth Safety, Seniors & Safety




Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Not all Chains are Created Equal

The Washington City Paper cites our 'Best Chain on Main' competition in a recent piece entitled "Subway Economics: Why D.C. Needs More Chains". What most people don't realize, they argue, is that some of the regions most beloved 'mom-and-pop' stores are in fact chain stores. Ace Hardware, for instance, sells license agreements to small operators, one of whom owns seven small hardware stores in the D.C. region. Most would never know that these stores are all owned by the same individual, because each store bears the name of neighborhood on the awning. This strategy allows independent retailers to benefit from economies of scale, while contributing to the local vibe that makes every neighborhood unique.

In light of Walmart's desire for entry into the D.C. market, the paper argues that these smaller independent chains should be encouraged to grow and thrive. Richard Layman, a D.C. blogger whose blog Rebuilding Place in Urban Space recently cited our contest, also speaks to how his position on chains has grown more nuanced over time. Throughout his professional career, he has come to realize that not all chains are created equal, and that chains can help a district improve its competitive position within the market by offering shoppers a diverse and attractive tenant mix. We tend to agree - but recognize that this is not always a popular position...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Retail Insights: Mobile Marketing and the Impact of Public Sector Budget Tightening

This season we look ahead to see how retail trends might impact the work of commercial district managers in the coming year...

1. Bulk Text Messaging and 'E-Marketing'
Text messages and mobile marketing in general are quickly emerging as cost effective ways to market commercial districts. When you consider that texts have an open rate of 98 percent – compared to 22 percent for email, and that 90% of test messages are opened within four minutes of being sent, the gravitation towards mobile marketing is a no-brainer.

Bulk-SMS services send text message coupons, discounts and event reminders to customers that opt-in to receive them from businesses. Services like this can range from $24/month to send 300 messages, to $149/month to send 2,000 messages.

Mobile marketing is also a particularly good way to attract younger customers. If younger customers make up a good portion of your district’s customer base, or if you are trying to grow your market to include younger customers, text messaging could be an excellent way for you to focus your efforts.

The Mobile Marketing Association has an interesting set of case studies on their website for those interested in learning more. I particularly like the story of Ace Hardware, a small format hardware store found on a number of commercial corridors, particularly in the Northeast. Ace Hardware utilized mobile marketing to award loyal customers with four promotions over the holiday season. The efforts resulted in an 8% increase in-store traffic.

2. Groupon or Group Off?
This season has been the season of Groupon. For the uninitiated, Groupon is a service that sends a daily email to members about a ‘great deal’ from a local business in the city they are in. The deal is only valid if a minimum number of customers sign up for the discounts. Groupon then charges 30-50% commission on the value of each coupon sold. So is it worth it? The debate rages on. A recent survey of businesses conducted by Rice University suggests that of those who have taken the Groupon leap, 42% would not participate again. The New York Times also examined this issue in a November article entitled “Is Groupon Good for Small Business?” which is worth a quick read. Bobb Phibbs, a retail consultant for small and medium-sized businesses, rails against Groupon in a post “Groupon Review: Worst Marketing For Your Local Business – Case Study”.

Despite the lack of consensus on whether Groupon is good for businesses, the investment sector is jumping on the Group-on bandwagon. Groupon recently turned down a Google offer to purchase the company for $6 billion dollars. And now there are rumors of a public offering. All of this on the backs of small and medium-sized businesses – the target audience for many of Groupon’s offers.

3. Stores Within Stores
From small stores to large stores, retailers are finding ways to decrease costs by sharing spaces. This trend seems to be happening at every price point in the market. From Edwin Watts Golf shop inside a Sears in Houston, to Earnest Sewn and Flower Girl on the Lower East Side, to a bar within a drugstore  in hip Williamsburg, NY. This is an interesting way for retailers to create the kinds of co-tenancies they want and need to keep shoppers returning to their stores.

4. Big Chains go Urban with Smaller Format Stores
In September, Target announced that it would focus less on new store development, and more on remodeling existing stores and testing smaller format stores with a focus on urban settings. With Walmart and Target leading exploring ‘urban strategies’, other chains will inevitably begin giving cities a closer look.

As exciting as this sound, the challenges of urban retail remain, including the challenges finding sites and the costs of development in dense urban areas. Yet as Walmart and Target can attest, if there are enough shoppers in any market, retailers will jump through whatever hoops they have to to open stores. Which is why a bigger challenge is on the horizon...convincing some retailers that there are enough customers to warrant an investment in an urban market. Which leads us to…

5. Growing Concern Over a Census Undercount
The release of the 2010 census will spur a cottage industry of census undercount analysis. Because federal funding is so closely tied to population counts, there is much to lose if a community believes it has been undercounted. Undercounts cost states critical federal dollars – and with state budgets already stretched to the max, many will be taking a closer look to see if they were somehow short changed in the most recent census efforts. In fact, in December, the State of California already claimed a census undercount. Let the second guessing begin!

The impact of an undercount will have a quiet but insidious impact on efforts to attract retail to urban markets. When census projections are off, retailers undervalue market opportunities and overlook locations in urban markets. The job of convincing and selling the reality of these markets then falls to business district management entities and economic development agencies. But unfortunately, their budgets are also being slashed…

6. Shrinking Public Funding for Downtowns and Commercial District Revitalization
The cuts to commercial revitalization efforts are widespread and growing. New York City saw a 33% decrease in funding for their Avenue NYC grant program in Fiscal 2010 as a result of cuts in funding from tax levy dollars. These small grants for everything from planning and market analysis to façade improvements.

The situation is not better 3,000 miles away in California, where recently elected Governor Jerry Brown is proposing to do away with Downtown Redevelopment Authorities. These Authorities have proved critical in revitalizing downtowns – providing funding for critically vital infrastructure investment and incentives that effectively allow downtown to compete with suburban sites. In light of budget challenges, the Governor is calling for the wholesale shut down of these authorities. This is a warning call to economic development agencies across the nation. Preventing deferred maintenance in the form of upgrades to aging infrastructure will increasingly become the responsibility of the property owners and business owners whose investments are at risk. Which leads us to…

7. The Rise of the Improvement District
The fall in State and local funding for commercial revitalization will be a call to action for businesses and property owners who recognize the need to fill the void. With the dwindling public funding, and with aging infrastructure at stake, businesses and property owners will attempt to find ways to help themselves. These efforts will take the form of Improvement Districts (aka Business Improvement Districts, Special Improvement Districts, Neighborhood Improvement Districts, etc.) These districts all follow the same concept. Within a defined area, property owners and business owners contribute to a fund for services or improvements to the district. These assessments are typically based on a formula that includes the property value and/or linear feet of street frontage.

Cities will be putting their limiting funding to advance BID efforts that help local communities develop sustainable funding for operational and program funding of commercial revitalization efforts.

Pittsburgh is one City taking NIDs by the horns. They are developing a Neighborhood Improvement District toolkit website, with valuable guidance on how to start and maintain a NID. This website is still in the works, but it promises to be a great tool for communities in Pittsburgh and beyond.

If Pittsburgh is any indication, the attempts to start Improvement Districts will not be without their critics. As businesses tighten their belts, many will be resistant to anything perceived as additional taxation. BID organizers need to get ahead of the curve and communicate that a BID assessment is not a tax, but rather a fee for services and investment.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


The Commercial District Advisor (CDA), in partnership with the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), is pleased to announce the winners of our first annual 'Best Chain on Main' competition!! Click here for the press release.

These businesses were selected by a nationally recognized judging panel for their successful business model and their contribution to commecial revitalization. Congratulations to all of our winners! 

In the coming weeks we will be profiling the winners on a dedicated website sponsored by Retail Traffic, and interviewing the business owners. So stay tuned!

First Place Winner: Villa
The first place winner is Villa, an urban-inspired apparel and footwear retailer with 26 locations throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region.
“Villa succeeds by combining profit and socially responsible business practices” says Farah Jimenez, President & CEO of People’s Emergency Center Community Development Corporation (PECCDC), the neighborhood-based non-profit leading local commercial revitalization efforts along Lower Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, where one of Villa’s stores is located, and the entity that nominated Villa. “Villa’s arrival in 2008 significantly advanced our commercial revitalization efforts. Their gleaming storefront served as an example that helped inspire other businesses and property owners to improve their storefronts and window displays. Since then, we have completed 15 façade improvement projects in our district – 8 on Villa’s block alone.”

“Villa is proud to receive the top honor as the 2010 Best Chain on Main,” says Jason Lutz, Villa’s President and CEO. “This award exemplifies Villa’s strong commitment to the communities we serve— by providing our customers with quality merchandise and excellent service, by supporting neighborhood initiatives, and by setting a positive example through good storefront design. We believe the respect we show our communities through these efforts is a cornerstone of our success.”

Second Place Winner: Pamela's P&G Diner
Pamela’s P&G Diner is recognized for their “Strip District” location, a historically gritty, industrial neighborhood just northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. Pamela’s P&G Diner is an anchor in the district, attracting visitors from the entire region and drawing foot traffic that invariably helps other local businesses. According to nominee Neighbors in the Strip, a local community group leading commercial revitalization efforts, Pamela’s also takes the lead in donating to worthy causes at its Strip District location. They consistently supports community efforts by sponsoring block parties, providing breakfast for more than 35 photographers during the organization’s annual photo walk and photography contest, and donating to other local causes.

The judges were particularly impressed by the attention to interior and exterior design detail – each location is designed and themed to enhance neighborhood ambiance and contribute to neighborhood character. The judges also recognized Pamela’s P&G participation in local commercial revitalization activities.

“We are proud of our commitment to walk able Main Streets” says Gail Klingensmith, owner of Pamela’s P&G. “Wherever we locate a store, we always make sure to belong to the local business group. We take pride in the fact that our stores have become a destination on Pittsburgh’s urban Main Streets.”

“They have been great partners since they opened about six years ago. For our annual Art and Stroll event, they helped close the block and brought in a 50’s band” says Becky Rodgers, Executive Director of Neighbors in the Strip. Rodgers adds “they are always first in line when we ask for help, donations, support or sponsorship. We are so pleased to see them getting the recognition they deserve.”
Third Place Winner: The Fresh Grocer
The dearth of fresh food options in urban areas is well documented. Philadelphia-based independent grocer The Fresh Grocer is helping to fill that market gap. The Fresh Grocer has been targeting urban markets in the Philadelphia area since 2001 at University City at 40th and Walnut. Their stores have helped catalyze commercial revitalization activities in many of the markets where they locate.

“These stores have spurred a lot of economic development in the areas” says The Fresh Grocer spokesperson Carly Spross, adding “our Northeast Philadelphia store is in an area that had been without a supermarket for 40 years.” “We also focus on hiring locally. In our newest locations, we have hired 98% of employees from within 2-miles of the store.”

The judges were impressed with The Fresh Grocer’s commitment to providing fresh food in underserved urban areas, their attractive displays and interiors, and their work in the local community. At their 56th and Chestnut store, they partnered with a local elementary school to incentivize higher attendance rates. At the end of the marking period, they provided $10 gift cards to children with perfect attendance rates. In the beginning of the initiative they gave out about 10 gift cards, but according to Sprouss, they gave out 85 gifts cards during the last marking period.

Honorable Mention
Honorable mentions were awarded to Mugshots Coffee House and Café, a coffee shop with 3 locations in Philadelphia, PA, and Gothic Cabinet Craft, a furniture retailer with 33 locations in and around New York City. 

Mugshots Coffee House and Café: The first Mugshots Coffee House and Café opened over 6 years ago. They now have three locations in the Philadelphia area. Their newest location on Girard Avenue in Brewerytown opened in November of 2009 with support from The Merchant Fund’s ReStore Retail Incentive Grant program, among other grant programs. Owner Angela Vendetti is a local resident with a deep personal interest in seeing the neighborhood revitalized. She notes that Girard Avenue is still a street in need of investment, and that retailers remain hesitant to open stores in the neighborhood. However, she noted that the arrival of Mugshots has helped stir local buzz. Since Mugshots opened, a day spa and pharmacy have opened, and restaurants are beginning to add to the retail mix.

The judges were impressed by the impeccably renovated façade featuring brick, ornamental metal, French doors, and large original plate glass windows. These details make the storefront stand out as a model façade improvement along the street. The interior also reflects the attention to design, with a focus on restoring the original plan oak flooring and other period details. “The store is a gem” says Patricia Blakely of The Merchant Fund, who provided funding for the façade. The judges also commend the owner for a standout, high quality investment in a low/moderate income neighborhood, and anticipate that this investment will spur other similar investments in the area.

Gothic Cabinet Craft: Gothic Cabinet Craft’s affordable, solid wood furniture has been a New York staple for almost forty years. The winning location, 82-18 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, NY stands out for the care taken with merchandise displays and their large transparent windows that give pedestrians simple eye candy on a street otherwise cluttered with newsstands and dollar stores. The store manager also offers the community prominent window space to display student art work sponsored by the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a local community group. Additionally, most of their furniture is built locally in Maspeth, Queens, providing valuable industrial jobs within the City. We congratulate the winners and hope their stories inspire your efforts to work with local businesses in support of your commercial revitalization efforts!

The judges were impressed by Gothic’s willingness to locate in underserved outer borough markets, where their clean, attractive merchandise displays often stand out on otherwise visually cluttered streets. While there are other small, budget furniture stores near the Jackson Heights location, Gothic’s arrival in Jackson Heights has helped elevate the quality of furniture offerings in the district and has also created improved opportunities for window shopping.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Round-Up: Outdoor Eating

As the next winter storm fast approaches, I dream of outdoor dining in warm weather. Perhaps now is the time to help some of your eating establishments think through simple ways to provide outdoor eating and boost their sales to boot! Here are a few examples for inspiration!
Beacon, NY

Montague Street, Brooklyn, NY

East Village, NY, NY

Grand Rapids, MI
Great Barrington, MA
Kingston, NY

Owner Wants Out. Now what?

This is a challenge that almost every business district manager will eventually have to face, particularly as baby boomers age and many who started their successful businesses are reaching retirement. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I have now been approached at least twice in the past few months by district managers concerned about a local business owner who has expressed a desire to sell their business. In both cases, the businesses in question were important contributors to the overall retail mix, and the loss of those businesses would have significantly hurt the district.

So what do you tell the business owner looking to move on? If you face this problem, it may come as a surprise to that there is a business brokerage community out there focused on helping businesses get bought and sold.  Engaging a reputable business broker is important, and you should find one that is certified by the International Business Brokers Association - and who comes well recommended. The IBBA website is a good resource for articles and information for those interesting in finding more about business sales as well. There are also websites like and that specialize in business sales and purchases where an owner can list their business. Earlier this week, I also noticed a short piece called "How to Sell Your Business" recently published in The New York Times on-line edition by Barbara Taylor, a business broker. It is a good primer with a  list of additional resources as well.

Selling a business is not like selling a home. The level of due diligence that prospective owners require is significantly greater - and the value of a business, particularly a small business, is often inextricably linked to its owner. Case in point - NBC Nightly News recently covered the challenges that Ann of Ann's Snack Bar, a Atlanta burger joint known for it's "Ghetto burgers", is having trouble selling her successful business. This destination business has lines outside the door.  But with no buyers, Ann's might not be around for much longer.  This would be a huge loss to surrounding business - and we hope for the sake of the district that she gets the help she needs to find a suitable buyer. Helping your owners find the resources they need to prepare their business for sale is an important way in which you can help - and one that could very well help the business remain in your district.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Census is Here! Is it Too Early to Worry about an Undercount?

Census figures have just come out and the long standing argument that the census undercounts urban areas is bound to become part of the story. In fact, the State of California is already prepared to argue that they were undercounted in 2010 by 1.5 million.

Cities are where the undercount typically happens. That is because 'hard to count' populations reside in urban areas. In fact, the last census is estimated to have resulted in an undercount of 1 million people of color in New York alone. The undercount not only affects the amount of Federal dollars heading to New York, it grossly under represents to retailers the opportunities for  business, as most retail market analysis is based on census figures. If those figures are off, then businesses will come to inaccurate conclusions about market potential in urban areas. Consider that an undercount of 1 million individuals at a median income of approx. $22,000 per person represents $1 BILLION in unrecognized income - and you realize how much is at stake.

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) completed a survey of retailers in 2004, in partnership with Business for Social Responsibility, and asked them why they didn't invest in urban areas underserved by retail. The second most cited obstacle to investment in underserved markets was an "insufficient concentration of the retailer’s target customer". A Census undercount contributes to that fallacy.

Yet not all retailers are avoiding urban markets. In fact, this September chain behemoths Walmart and Target unveiled “urban” strategies – and the announcements cited both the diminishing opportunities in the traditional suburban marketplace and the unrecognized opportunities in the urban marketplace.

Will a 2010 Census undercount further reinforce the stereotype of limited buying power in urban areas, or will the success of stores like Target and Walmart put the debate to rest?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sharing Retail Space - More than Just Sharing Costs

Sharing retail space is not an uncommon approach to reducing costs among retailers. I recently toured the Lower East Side Business Improvement District with representatives from the City of New York's Small Business Services and was excited to see a nice example of shared space. The Lower East Side is historically known as America's original bargain district. Today its identity is in transition, as some of the original garment stores co-exist beside new entries into the market. One of those new stores is Earnest Sewn, a back to basics men's clothing store that fits right in with the district's historic identity as a garment district and newer identity as a hip place to shop, east and visit. We got to meet the owner and hear about his growth (this is their second store, the first is in New York's Meatpacking District). What intrigued me was the boutique flower store is tucked in a corner inside the store. At first it didnt' seem the most logical fit, until you looked around and noticed how wonderfully the floral and plant arrangements complimented the merchandise. The owner mentioned that the shared space arrangement is something that they have replicated in their other location.  I took some pictures to share...enjoy!