Friday, December 21, 2012

Small-format British grocer leaving US market...

Small grocer seemingly tailor made for urban communities exits the U.S. market, cites Bloomberg news (TESCO exits U.S market. (Bloomberg News, 12/5)

This story caught my eye...perhaps because a few years ago, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, a 14,000 square foot grocery store concept by British-based TESCO was all the rage. The company had reportedly spent $1 billion (yes, with a B) on R&D and was looking at extremely rapid US expansion. Lots of communities were clamoring to sit down with TESCO to see if they could convince them to fill the smaller retail spaces typically found in older urban communities. In fact, I was part of a few of those conversations at ICSC Dealmaking in Las Vegas in 2008. But apparently, no more. "Fresh & Easy was let down by poor execution, clinical stores, a predominance of own-brand products in a brand-loving U.S. market, and a lack of understanding by consumers" says Bloomberg news. Not to mention bad timing...the end of 2008 saw the collapse of the economy as well. I wonder what the plan is for existing Fresh & Easy's....

Not anymore....
Fresh & Easy was a cool concept that worked in urban neighborhoods...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Commercial districts need facelifts too....

I just love this article in the WSJ...and it applies to commercial districts as well. Malls Get Facelift to Pull In Shoppers (Wall Street Journal, 12/18). Here are a few choice quotes that inspired me to think about how these same principles apply to urban commercial districts and traditional downtowns.

The good news....
  • "Making what you already have as good as it can be is the best way to go." My thoughts...Commercial districts need to continually improve and upgrade. It's critical to remain relevant to your customer base. 
  • "Landlords and analysts say the improvements can generate annual income of as much as 10% to 12% of the cost of the upgrades." My thoughts...this is a great argument to use with local property owners and business owners. 
  • "Mall owners are adding more restaurants, upscale movie theaters, supermarkets and other tenants that offer goods and experiences that can't be found online." My thoughts...the good news is that downtown and urban areas already offer the experience and tenant mix described's an asset to build from!
...and the bad.
  • "The retail-property industry has a long history of throwing good money after bad by trying to save shopping centers facing tough competition and growing vacancy rates." Does this meant that already flailing commercial districts may not make good investments??
  • "most redevelopment is taking place at the country's top-performing malls" Convincing mall owners to invest in lower performing malls proves as challenging as convincing property owners to invest in properties in communities that are seemingly struggling...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Improving Your Signature Holiday Events: Cookie Tour Keeps it Simple and Local

Every year the Joy of Cookies, Cookie Tour in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh brings thousands of visitors to neighborhood. Local business owners say that Cookie Tour weekend is the neighborhood’s busiest shopping weekend. Here is what we love about this event...

  • Simple - The concept is simple. During the Tour, which runs the first weekend in December, participating businesses put out plates of unique kinds of cookies along with recipe cards for visitors to collect. 
  • Steady - The Tour has been going on for the past thirteen years. Many visitors said they've gone every year and have the recipe cards to prove it.
  • Getting around -Visitors are provided an itinerary in the form of a colorful map that merchants give out.
  • Fun signage - Each stop along the places a numbered gingerbread man in their store window. 
  • Strategic - Many of the businesses put trays of cookies in the back of their store or at the register, so guests browse and shop as they snack.
But the event is not without its challenges - which are probably familiar to many of you charged with planning events in your district. As a volunteer-run event, its success depends heavily on the time and energy of event organizers, who themselves manage their own businesses. Therefore it is critical to grow event revenue through sponsorships and fundraising, without losing the local feel that makes this event so unique. Another issue is keeping costs down for participating merchants (baking enough Cookies to feed hungry visitors from Thursday though Sunday is expensive!) in order to encourage increased participation from merchants.

In the coming weeks, our team will work closely with event organizers to tackle these, and other challenges related to growing, while at the same time maintaining the character of this successful community event. So stay tuned - and in the meantime, enjoy these great pictures from the Cookie Tour!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Retail Insights: ICSC leaders report tight market

As the New York State Public Sector Co-Chair for the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), I have the benefit of meeting and learning from a fantastic group of colleagues in the retail industry. This morning at the Eastern Division Committee Meeting, held during ICSC's National Conference and Deal Making in New York City, State director's representing 12 northeastern states and the District of Columbia came together to discuss trends in the market in each of their respective regions. Some interesting themes dominated, and a few trends suggest opportunities - as well as challenges - for those managing traditional urban commercial districts. Here are some highlights for those of you in these markets...

Pennsylvania/Southern New Jersey/Delaware

  • The "new" "normal": smaller and tighter ("less, less, less") fewer retailers doing smaller and less stores. (i.e. we did 50 Target stores over the past 5 years in the region, there will be only 5 more!)
  • There is no development spigot (it is not even dripping!)
  • Existing "quality" in-line space is getting mopped up!
  • Many states are passing or have passed tax fairness legislation, a major initiative of ICSC to ensure that brick-and-mortar retailers can fairly compete with on-line retailers. 
Mass/Maine/New Hampshire/Rhode Island/Vermont
  • Notable retailers expanding include Wegman's, Health clubs, Frozen Yogurt, Chef-driven restaurants, Darden, Pharmacies, TJX
  • Shuttered locations (Borders, Filene's Basement) have been mostly absorbed
  • Relative to other major regions, Boston remains a top 5 market for retailer expansion nationally
  • Urban core, densely populated, transit-friendly cities, like Boston, Quincy and Somerville, MA continue to experience steady retail growth/activity [personal comment - this was one of my favorite updates yet!]
  • On-line sales are hitting apparel retailers less than they are hitting hardline products
New York/Northern New Jersey
  • Hurricane Sandy hit the supply chain of retailers hard. Many final shipments to stores in advance of the holiday season were affected. If shipments were missed, retailers must either send products by expensive air freight, pay a penalty for late shipment of face canceled orders.
  • The storm is expected to shave up to half a percentage point from growth in the fourth quarter. 
  • In Manhattan, average asking rents are at record highs. Downtown Manhattan rents grew 28 percent in the quarter, to $213/ per square foot. 
  • Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn continues to lease with national tenants. 
  • In New Jersey, landlords left with large spaces vacated by retailers like Borders and Filene's are finding creative solutions, like dividing space for gyms or re-positioning some space for medical or health uses. 
  • Leasing activity continues to be driven by average size retailers opening shops in the 1,000 to 5,000 sf range. 
  • A host of new retailers are entering the New Jersey market for the first time, including national and regional brands - Hobby Lobby, The Tile Shop, Harbor Freight, Fairway Market, Millers Ale House, Arhaus Furniture, Brio Restaurant, Dinosaur BBQ, Doctor Dental, Doctors Express, Lazzoni Furniture, Noodles & Company Restaurants, Pei Wei Restaurants, Quaker Steak & Lube. 

Professional Development Opportunities for Economic Development Professionals

Excited to share with my readers some upcoming training programs that I will be co-leading. If you are in the NYC or Philly markets, don't miss these great opportunities to gain new skills, expose yourself to best practices, and network with a fantastic group of colleagues. 

International Economic Development Council
Date: January 17 - 18, 2013
Location: Sheraton, Brooklyn

This practitioner-driven course uses the case study method to complement current neighborhood development theory. Participants will learn how to identify the major neighborhood actors, their objectives, and strategies for redevelopment, in addition to understanding the process for creating a strategic economic development plan to meet the neighborhood development goals. Specifically, this course will examine social capital (e.g., linkages, networks, talent, etc.), environmental capital (e.g., stewardship, residual management, etc.) and economic capital (e.g., investment and reinvestment) facing distressed neighborhoods and offer solutions to address local needs. Applicants will be eligible to receive 16 APA CM credits.

Course Highlights:
  • Asset creation, wealth creation, and enterprise development & expansion
  • Housing development, real estate speculation, and tax-base stabilization
  • Public and private sector role in combating inner city unemployment
  • Examining historical and current neighborhood trends
  • Performing leakage assessments and gap analyses
  • Aligning strategic plans for multiple neighborhood groups
  • Understanding the underserved needs for banking and grocery
  • Working with media to share success stories
Registration Links: 
For more information and to register, click here

Course Instructors:
  • Larisa Ortiz, President, Larisa Ortiz Associates
  • Colvin W. Grannum, President, Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (Restoration)
  • Kevin McQueen, Managing Director, Community Development Finance Project, Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, The New School for Public Engagement
  • Ms. Diane Lupke, CEcD, President, Lupke & Associates

International Council of Shopping Centers 
University of Shopping Centers
Dates: Wednesday, March 6
Location: Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

What does it take to get your community on a retailer's radar? In this session you'll learn what retailers want to see in terms of a full market analysis of the retail area, how to assess the needs and desires of retailers and how to approach them, what consumer demographics
should be highlighted, and what incentives and subsidies are likely to sweeten the deal and get them to sign on. 

Course Highlights:  
  • What it takes to get "retail ready"-what kinds of amenities help make your community more attractive, such as parking, lighting, highway and road access, and retail competition
  • Case studies of successful municipal retail attraction programs and development projects that have sparked investment at both the downtown and neighborhood levels and walk participants through exercises that will help participants immediately begin applying lessons learned 
Course Instructors
  •  Lawrence E. Kilduff, CDP, CSM, ICSC Distinguished Service Award Recipient, President, The Kilduff Company, Saukville, WI
  • Larisa Ortiz, Principal, Larisa Ortiz Associates, Jackson Heights, NY  

Registration Links
Click here for more information and to register. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Visitor's Centers - A Relic of the Past?

The New Years Ball at the
Times Square Visitors Center 
The other night at an event I had the opportunity to speak with Gretchen Dykstra, the founding president and CEO of the Times Square Business Improvement District (now the Times Square Alliance) here in New York and we got to talking about the Times Square Visitors Center. For those unfamiliar with the Center, it's truly an amazing space where visitors can get up close to the famed New Year's ball and learn a bit about Times Square history in a rehabilitated former theatre located right off Times Square. When the Center was developed under Gretchen's leadership, it provided a much needed respite...a small post office, a souvenir shop, a coffee kiosk, bus tour ticket booth, etc. She mentioned that her vision was to provide a place with visitor offerings that at the time were lacking. When it opened, the visitors center was a one of a kind place that saw millions of visitors a year.

When I mentioned that the visitors center has recently seen a decline in visitation - something that the Times Square Alliance is seeking to address - I noted that the Visitors Center is an anachronism. These days, who buys stamps and sends postcards when email will do? And why would someone go inside to get a cup of coffee at a Starbucks kiosk when right outside the Broadway pedestrian malls there are high end food trucks, not to mention Starbucks nearly everywhere. And the closed street and the red steps offer seating that put you right in the center of the action? Isn't that why people go to Times Square to begin with? And let's not forget the fact that visitors can now access nearly all of the information they need from smart phones - and increasingly they do.

Our conversation reminded me of a recent visit to a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike. The downstairs was PACKED. There were literally hundreds of people milling around and waiting in line to get food. When I walked upstairs to the Visitors Center, I couldn't believe what I saw. You could hear a pin drop. No one was up there.

NJ Turnpike rest stop. Lots of people below.
Upstairs is the Visitors Center.
Upstairs you could practically hear the crickets.

It got me to thinking about the resources that so many BIDs and other organizations put into what increasingly seems like a dying breed of services. Information is digital - but the ways that many organizations supply information is stuck in a time warp. I'm curious about who is tackling these issues in more innovative ways.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Help businesses in the Far Rockaways get back on their feet!

This short video vividly illustrates the devastation felt by small businesses along the commercial corridors of the Far Rockaways in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. Yesterday's Noreaster has only made the situation worse. Please donate today!

For those interested in the backstory...Nate Echeverria, co-founder of Lucky Ant, a small business crowd-source financing site, reached out to me immediately after the hurricane to see if I could help connect them with communities in need. As Director of the Coro Neighborhood Leadership program, a leadership training program for BID and CDC Executive and Senior staff, I was more than happy to put them in contact with members of our alumni community, a number of whom were significantly impacted by the storm impacts. The first call I made was to Kevin Alexander, Executive Director of The Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation. Kevin described a scene of chaos and destruction that left his local business community reeling. Within three days of that conversation, this site was launched. It is amazing what networks and relationships can do in times of need!

For those of you working on NYC-based commercial district revitalization efforts, Coro Neighborhood Leadership is currently recruiting for the 2013 class.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Landlords, retailers recovering from Sandy...but it depends on where

The impacts of the hurricane are mixed for many local commercial districts. For local merchants in communities less affected by the storm, many reported higher sales this week on the days they were open, particularly as a number of national chains kept their doors shut during the hurricane. However, the impacts of the hurricane are still being severely felt along commercial corridors throughout the City. In Staten Island and in other places where electricity has not yet returned, corridor managers are concerned about looting. For those businesses that are open, sales have been extremely brisk - particularly for retailers selling post-hurricane related goods such as home goods and groceries. General merchandise stores will also continue to see sales increases. 

Overall, the industry anticipates significant impact from the storm. Citigroup, Inc has predicted that the "hurricane may cut retail sales by up to 3 percent nationally, with traffic falling 40 percent in the storm affected regions during the first week of November, which traditionally accounts for 22 percent of the month's sales." [Storm Latest: Landlords, retailers recovering, Shopping Centers Today News]. Some shopping destinations are turning need into opportunity. In New Jersey, Garden State Plaza is setting up tents to hand out water and dry ice to residents without power. And with transportation options still limited in so many New York neighborhoods, local commercial corridors that still have power are poised to benefit from the captive demand. 

An outline for Commercial District Disaster Recovery

By Jeff Eichenfeld

Jeff is Vice President of Retail & Commercial Assets at New York City Economic Development Corporation. A Bay Area transplant, he is well versed in helping commercial districts with disaster planning and recovery efforts. This outline is a helpful primer for communities dealing with the challenges associated with post-hurricane clean up and recovery. 

I.             Access and Entry Procedures
a.    For damaged buildings—emergency personnel will be able to get inside damaged buildings, but communities need written processes and procedures in place to allow business owners access to their inventory and records, and property owners need access to inspect damage for themselves, while at the same time making sure their safety is ensured.
b.    For a district as a whole—again, emergency personnel will be able to get into damaged areas, but other local and state officials and business and property owners, media, etc. will also need safe access.

II.           Building Damage and Repair
a.    Damage assessment procedures—FEMA and local building officials will do this, but make sure historic preservation experts who understand historic building systems/issues are included on these teams; also develop a communications plan so that the public understands what FEMA “red tag, yellow tag, green tag” designations mean.  The goal is to avoid unnecessary “red tag” designations that might lead to premature demolition.
b.    Demolition controls
                                 i.      Historic preservation—discuss how local and state historic preservation and environmental review laws will be applied in an emergency.
                               ii.      Shoring and Stabilization—discuss and develop shoring and stabilization procedures so that building owners and local officials will have adequate time to determine the fate of severely damaged buildings that have significant economic or historic significance to the community.
c.    Repair standards and procedures—determine to what design standards buildings will be required to be repaired to, and if “as-was-before the disaster” repairs can be made via a more streamlined process than would be used for demolitions, new constructions or major additions or modifications.

III.          Economic Recovery
a.    Business relocation plans—identify alternate locations for displaced businesses, as well as parking lots where temporary tents (large hard shell tents) and trailers can be erected; identify who will be in charge of facilitating and promoting the relocations.
b.    Promotions and public relations—develop potential strategies and who will be responsible for organizing local “back-to-business” news and tourism recovery programs.
c.    Financial assistance—discuss loan, grant and private fundraising options.
d.    Attracting new anchor uses—anticipate the need to attract new anchors to replace displaced businesses---i.e. temporary pop-up businesses, street vendors, farmers markets and crafts markets.

IV.         Business District Management
a.    Staffing—anticipate the need for additional BID or city staff and the possibility that existing staff may be injured or displaced or otherwise unable to come to work.
b.    Rumor squashing/communications—hold frequent community meetings and publish flyers/newsletters; anticipate that electricity and internet access may be limited.
c.    Organizational recovery—anticipate the need to boost the organizational capacity of existing local non-profits, BIDS and government units that will have to take on disaster recovery duties.
d.    Organizational preparedness—conduct annual disaster drills at the local level that include local business organizations, historic preservation and cultural arts allies, as well as local building and emergency response officials.

e.    Buildings—develop long-term plans, ordinances and financial programs to retrofit buildings to withstand damage.
f.       Infrastructure—develop long-term plans and financial mechanisms to upgrade utilities, roads, and other community infrastructure to withstand damage.

V.           Vision Planning
a.    Desired land uses—update zoning, land use and design plans to reflect the way in which a community or district would want to re-build after a disaster.
b.    Recovery plans—develop disaster preparedness and recovery plans that include economic as well as physical recovery.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane Relief Resources for Commercial District Managers

As a New York-based organization, our heart goes out to the millions affected by Hurricane Sandy. In Jackson Heights, Queens, where our offices are located, the effects were minimal. Many trees fell, but miraculously there was little damage to structures. 

Across the City, Business Improvement Districts are now mobilizing for recovery as many of local businesses continue to feel the impact of the hurricane. In our local BID,the 82nd Street Partnership, a number of signs and awning have been damaged that will need repair. But other than that we fared pretty well. 

See below for a good overview of resources, sent by the Flatiron BID District this morning.


New York City, including the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), is coordinating a set of services to assist small businesses in recovering from Hurricane Sandy. Below is an outline of available programs and relevant contact information. 

New York City Business Assistance Programs

For small- to mid-sized businesses that have experienced business interruption
Emergency loans will be available, patterned after similar programs deployed in past emergencies. Loans will be capped at $10,000. Please click this link to contact an NYC Business Solutions Account Manager or call 311 and ask for NYC Business Emergency Loan.

For mid- to large-sized businesses that need to undertake rebuilding
An emergency sales tax letter from New York City Industrial Development Authority (IDA) will be available allowing businesses to avoid payment of New York City and New York State sales taxes on materials purchased for rebuilding. IDA will also waive all fees and, while following State law, look to streamline its normal procedure. This program is expected to offer economic benefits to reconstruction projects costing $500,000 or more. Please contact Shin Mitsugi for further information on this program.

For any business that is temporarily displaced from its space
Short-term "swing" office space at Brooklyn Army Terminal available free of charge for the next30 days. NYCEDC has approximately 40,000 square feet of warehouse space at the Terminal that can be used for this purpose. Please click this link to contact an NYC Business Solutions Account Manager or call 311 and ask for NYC Business Solutions.

For any business in need of other emergency assistance
The SBS Business Outreach Team and Emergency Response Unit's Large Scale Response Team will be deployed after the storm to help all impacted small businesses. This team is currently on-call for any storm-related business inquiries and is closely coordinating with the NYC Office of Emergency Management. Please click this link to contact an NYC Business Solutions Account Manager or call 311 and ask for NYC Business Solutions

Federal Aid Programs for Disaster Recovery

Click here for information from the Federal Small Business Administration on disaster recovery assistance.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inspired by the South Bronx - Aspirational Staging of Vacant Space

Earlier this week I had the distinct pleasure of speaking on a panel with my friend and colleague Kerry McLean at the annual conference of the New York State Neighborhood Preservation Coalition. Kerry is Director of Community Development at the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco), a non-profit that builds ‘green’ affordable housing and offers innovative solutions to Bronx families. I've written about WHEDco's work before - but her most recent accomplishment really deserves mention. The district where Kerry works is one that has seen its fair share of troubles. When the Bronx was burning in the 1970's, Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx was ground zero. Remember that famous image of President Carter touring a destroyed urban neighborhood? Yup, that is exactly where we are talking about. 

Before: Vacant Space along Southern Blvd, Bronx, NY
After years of investment in new housing, education and programming - the organization turned its efforts to improving the retail offerings. But getting "retail ready" meant starting with the basics first. Working with local merchants to improve the overall safety and cleanliness of the street. 

In 2010, WHEDco was a member of the first cohort to participate in the City of New York's award-winning Neighborhood Retail Leasing Program. As the program director during it's inaugural year, I had the opportunity to see the "before" situation - new housing, some of it developed by WHEDCO, with long standing ground floor vacancies. 

As you can tell from the"before" image. These spaces were clearly not showing well. The retail consultants we hired, JGSC Group, recommended improved staging, starting with the window displays. They encouraged Kerry to identify images of the kinds of retail the community wanted and could sustain (based on an assessment and market research) and fill the windows with images that not only improved the look and feel of the space (and district), but might also build interest from potential tenants. To our knowledge, this is the first time that this strategy has been deployed by a non-profit.

While this particular space has not yet been leased, the "after" pictures are phenomenal improvement over what was there before.

After: Staging of Vacant Spaces
After: Staging of Vacant Spaces
For those interested in replicating this great idea, be forewarned, it took a lot longer to execute than we originally thought. For those considering going this route, Kerry has a an important lesson learned....finding the images was the hardest part. Once the decision was made to fill the windows with images, WHEDco wanted images that not only reflected the retail uses they wanted, but also the demographics of the neighborhood. This meant that most stock images were not quite right. And when they finally did find images that they liked, they were too small to be blown up to the size needed without becoming pix elated.

After month's of searching for the right images, the outcome speaks for itself! We'll keep tabs on the progress of this space for you. For more information on WHEDco's efforts, please visit the dedicated website at 

Are women short-changed within the BID world?

By Contributing Advisor: Dr. Carol Becker

Dr. Becker is an academic who studies business improvement districts. She completed the first comprehensive BID census and survey for the IDA back in 2010. Dr. Becker is co-authoring a book on women in downtown.

In 2010, I surveyed 203 business improvement districts large enough to have full-time staff on behalf of the International Downtown Association (IDA). Subsequent analysis of women and men in leadership positions found that 54% were headed by women and 46% by men. While it appears that men and women are hired about equally into BID management positions, the power conveyed from those hires are not equal, particularly when job title is taken into consideration.  

My analysis found a subtle but pervasive difference between the title conveyed to men and women in the field. The title “President” or “President/CEO” carries more prestige – and subsequently pay - than those with the title “Executive Director.” Of 203 BID's, 33% of men held the title of "President", "CEO" or "President/CEO" while 14% of women did. Women more frequently held the lower prestige title of Executive Director, in comparison to while 51% of men with that title.  As to even lower prestige titles, 7% of men and 3% of women held the title "Director" and 6% of women and 3% of men held the title "Manager." 

To what to we attribute these differences? And is this a cause for concern? 

Monday, October 15, 2012


For those of you in the New York market...don't miss this exciting event! Larisa Ortiz Associates is pleased to be partnering with the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), the retail industry's most prominent trade group on a breakfast panel and "Neighborhood Runway." Click here to download the event flyer. 

The event will begin with a networking breakfast. Following breakfast will be a Neighborhood Runway featuring five of the City’s most exciting retail districts. Presentations for this segment will be given by Lauren Brown (Jamaica Center BID, Queens), Gordon Bell (Bed-Stuy Gateway BID, Brooklyn), Michelle Sledge (Northfield Community LDC, Staten Island), and Jamila Diaz (HUB 3rd Avenue, Bronx).

A panel discussion regarding CityPoint and retail in Downtown Brooklyn will also take place. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) increasingly play an active role in retail attraction, offering services, support and physical improvements that are transforming retail corridors throughout the five boroughs. One such example is CityPoint, a 1.6 million square foot project poised to change the face of downtown Brooklyn. Together with our panelists we will explore how the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a Business Improvement District, has facilitated efforts to ensure the success of this and other downtown retail projects. The panel will be moderated by Larisa Ortiz, Principal of Larisa Ortiz Associates and Co-Chair of the New York State ICSC Alliance Program. 

Organizations and businesses are also welcome to bring their marketing material to the event. A table for collateral will be available for attendees to place your marketing material.

Space is limited, so register now at:

The ICSC Alliance Program works to enhance communication between the public and private sector on emerging issues that impact the retail real estate industry and the quality of life in local communities.

Downtown Police Stations - a catalyst for revitalization

I was so pleased to see this recent piece on Middletown, CT where I first cut my teeth in downtown revitalization in the late 1990's. At the time, plans for a downtown police station with ground floor retail were on the drawing board, and William Warner, Middletown's Director of Planning, was working hard turning that vision into a reality. Many years later the station is being heralded as a "catalyst for our growth" by Quentin Phipps, Executive Director of the Middletown Downtown Business Improvement District. ["Downtown police stations seen as catalyst in 2 cities",, 10/13]. Other cities in Connecticut are now looking to replicate this success. Norwich, CT is now asking taxpayers to finance a bond of $33.4 million to construct a similar police station.

Middletown, CT downtown Police Station
Source: Google Streetview
But the police station was not the only investment made in downtown. At the time, the City successfully applied to become one of Connecticut's first state Main Street programs. Lots of additional small investments have also made a difference. Since then the City has formed a Business Improvement District, welcomed a 12-screen movie theater and a 100-room inn to town. These investments - a mixture of public and private partnerships - are now being considered a model for other towns. I couldn't agree more!

Friday, October 12, 2012

News Roundup - Good ideas and a congrats in order!

Sorry for being away for so long! In the spirit of returning to regular is a roundup of recent commercial district news from around the country...enjoy!

Congrats to our friend's in Downtown Asheville, NC! Downtown Asheville gets a Business Improvement District...and it was a hard-won battle. At the public hearing a few months ago, BID advocate Joe Minicozzi dumped bags of cigarette butts that volunteers had collected in their efforts to keep the streets clean. I just love that little anecdote! The June hearing resulted in a postponement of the BID effort until Fall, which gave organizers some time to refine the proposal in response to critics. In the end, some compromises were made. Kim MacQueen, an interim board member told the local paper Mountain Xpress, "We revisited boundaries, bylaws, board makeup and services. We spent the entire summer looking at those and met at least weekly." In the end, their tenacity paid off. "Downtown Asheville Tax District Passes", Citizen Times 

Perhaps not the most attractive image, but the
cigarette butts make a compelling argument, no?
Need to incentivize major downtown investment? Define a vision and use it to leverage public funds. Hudson Square, a Business Improvement District in NYC, just unveiled it's plans for streetscape improvements within the district. This is a quintessential BID function that often gets overlooked - that of advocacy. BID's can be powerful mechanisms to advocate for much needed investment in public infrastructure - investment that would otherwise go elsewhere. The plan for Hudson Square, developed by landscape architects Matthews Nielson, outlines the BID's vision and puts a price tag - a hefty $27 million - on the proposed improvements. Were these planning funds well spent? When you consider that the plan will undoubtedly help to leverage millions of dollars of additional funding, which will ultimately make the district more appealing to visitors and investors alike - the answer is an unequivocal yes! "Hudson Square overhaul proposed", Crain's NY

Struggling for professional quality images of your downtown? Finding great photos of your district for your marketing materials and website can sometimes be a challenge - so why not sponsor a photo competition? In Port Washington, Long Island, the Business Improvement District is sponsoring just such a competition. The contest will include prizes of $1,000, $500 and $300 dollars. "BID Announces Photo Contest", Port Washington Patch

Foundations making their mark in Downtown Pittsburgh, PA. The Colcom Foundation recently committed $500,000 to help restore the historic storefronts of small Downtown buildings and recruit new retailers into them.The loans will range from $5,000 to $30,000 and the money can be used to install lighting, awnings and make other general facade improvements."Colcom Funds Grant for Downtown Retail", Pittsburgh Business Times

Friday, August 24, 2012

ICSC SCTWeek reports store openings up 11 percent in July

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan
Could things be looking up for commercial districts looking to fill vacancies? Shopping Centers Today, a publication of the International Council of Shopping Centers, reports that retail store-opening plans hit a four-year high in July, according to RBC Capital Markets, whose research team tracks 2,000 chains each month. This includes retailers that don't shy away from downtown areas and urban commercial districts, including Dollar General, Family Dollar, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Subway. These retailers were cited as having the most new stores on the drawing board, according to the report. In addition, "plus-size apparel, specialty gifts, and crafts are the merchandise the biggest increase in store-opening plans versus a year ago." 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Small businesses and the digital divide

A few years ago I was doing work in a New Jersey commercial district known for its community of mostly immigrant small business owners. The local economic development corporation had spent at least a year convincing one particular local restaurant owner that he needed to computerize - until then you would catch him pulling out wads of hundred dollar bills whenever he had to pay a vendor. Not only did the failure to maintain proper accounting controls likely affect his profit margin, making it more difficult to manage costs, it had another significant downside. When the business owner wanted to renovate and approached a local bank for a loan, he was soundly rejected. Without proof of income, banks were unwilling to lend to the business owner for a much needed renovation and expansion. Not only was his business growth stymied, the renovations would have turned a trash-filled empty lot into nice outdoor dining. This improvement would have signaled a real change for the district - and perhaps helped other businesses as well.

A new report out by the Center for an Urban Future entitled "Smarter Small Businesses" confirms the depth of this problem - one that is particularly acute many lower-income, minority communities. While nearly 9 out of 10 respondents report having a computer, as many as one in five low- to moderate-income proprietors did not. Getting bank loans is one thing, but the failure to embrace technology is hurting these proprietors in ways that they may not even understand. As more and more people look to the internet for shopping, dining and entertainment recommendations, the failure to have a website, or to engage with social media in strategic ways means missed opportunities to grow a clientele. What can commercial district practitioners do to reverse this trend? Here are a few ideas culled from the report as well as my own experience:

  • Greater education is key. Connect with resource providers who can offer classes in the basics, like Quickbooks or marketing through social media. For commercial districts with large non-english speaking populations, see if its possible to offer instruction in the languages spoken by local business owners. Get these providers to come to your district to offer these classes - making attendance for busy business owners a bit easier. 
  • Offer access to direct technical assistance. Considering hiring a professional technology consultant to help businesses develop and maintain basic websites, or to set up accounting in Quickbooks. As the report notes, not every business needs a website, but for many district businesses a website will help draw customers. Some businesses can by-pass a traditional website entirely and just go for a Facebook increasingly popular option. 
  • If your businesses don't have an on-line presence, create one for them. Use your district website. Make sure you have a district directory where their businesses are listed. If you have a twitter feed, offer to tweet their specials or sales to your followers.
  • Support peer-to-peer networking among your local businesses. Host mixers and invite speakers to meetings and breakfasts. Business owners are more likely to adopt tools if they see their peers using them. 
I encourage everyone to read this report - it is chock full of good data and insights, and many of you will likely find the stories and anecdotes extremely familiar. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Lucky Ant launches its first Coro Neighborhood!

A few weeks ago we posted about Lucky Ant, a hyper-local crowd-source financing mechanism that is working closely with Business Improvement Districts and other community organizations to support neighborhood revitalization. Lucky Ant works with the district organization to select businesses, or exciting public projects, that over time create a critical mass of improvements to a neighborhood. As a result of a collaboration with the Coro Neighborhood Leadership (NL) Program, a New York-based leadership and skills training program for commercial revitalization practitioners, Lucky Ant issued an RFP to the NL alumni community in an effort to identify the next neighborhood in their on-line arsenal. The Fordham Road BID, and Coro NL Alum, Deputy Executive Director Daniel Bernstein, were among the first to get in line. The project is a partnership between the Fordham Road BID, the NYC Department of Transportation and Bronx, and Bronx-based sculptor Christian Marche. To find out more about the project, and to support the BID's efforts with a donation, check out the video below, and click here! For as little as $10 dollars you can make a difference in this neighborhood!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What a Pittsburgh CDC can teach you about improving your retail mix

BEFORE: The space had been vacant for 5 years.
Photo courtesy of Google Maps. 
How do you find a retailer to fill a specific niche in your community. Well, at least one answer is as simple as it sounds - tell people! I recently visited Mount Washington, a community in Pittsburgh, PA known for its scenic and incredible view of the Pittsburgh skyline. In 2009, the local community organization, Mount Washington CDC, conducted community survey as a way to better understand the kinds of retail that residents wanted and needed. The idea was that the survey would inform their retail recruitment efforts. The survey confirmed what they had heard anecdotally, residents wanted the basics, including a hardware store, a bakery and a souvenir shop. Coupled with market data that confirmed the viability of these uses, the CDC set about sharing their survey findings in their neighborhood newsletter, "On the Mount". In addition to the survey findings, they also used the opportunity to ask the community if they knew of anyone who wanted to start a bakery in the neighborhood. 
Grandview Bakery, a great addition to Mount Washington

Calling all Bakers!
Lo and behold, Vickie Pisowicz, a resident, former baker and businesswoman was reading the newsletter - and the announcement caught her eye. Vicki has previously co-owned a bakery and was ready to get back in the game. She called Chris Beichner, Executive Director of MWCDC, in June of 2010 and they started a conversation. At the same time, Chris had developed relationships with property owners in the district and was poised to show her vacant spaces that met her needs. He was also prepared to help her take advantage of incentives available to start small businesses - including programs offered by the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. One included a $2,000 contribution towards design layout services, as well as grant funds from the City's Storefront Renovation Program. The design layout was really crucial because the space they finally found was a bit larger than she needed. The larger space required Vickie to change her business plan to include a party room and the sale of bakery supplies. MWCDC also connected Vicki with local restaurants, many of whom gave her contracts to bake for them. 

In October of 2011, Grandview Bakery opened it's door to the public with a bang. Vickie estimates that 90% of her early customers where residents - and her first few days the lines were out the door. As they move into the first tourist season, she is now poised to welcome some of the more than 1 million visitors to venture up the incline to take in the amazing view.
[For more: Grandview Bakery and Sweet Shop opens in Mount Washington, Pop City Media, Oct. 2011]

So what are the lessons learned here? 

  • Use your survey data - what good is a survey if you don't share your findings. So don't be shy to tell people about your findings! In Mount Washington they put the findings in a newsletter, but you should also take the show on the road, so speak. Speak to your local chamber of commerce, ask for meetings with property owners, host a "broker breakfast" and tell your local brokerage community. The more people you can tell about what you are looking for, the more likely a prospect will hear about you and call you. And don't forget to cultivate the media too!
  • Flashy marketing brochures aren't always necessary. The proof is in the pudding. Or should I say "cupcake"? Bad pun. 
  • Use the communication tools at your disposal - newsletters, email list-serves, etc. These tools are invaluable to you. So use them. And don't forget to take the time to build your mailing and email lists. One of your tasks as an organization should always be to grow your distribution lists. Include brokers, property owners and business owners in addition to local residents.  
  • Cultivate relationships with property owners and/or their brokers so that you can connect them with tenants. What good is having tenants who want spaces if you can't show them viable vacancies?
  • Know about any and all incentives and be prepared to connect local business owners with the resources available to them. Many cities offer matching grants and other business services. Make it your job to know about these resources and cultivate relationships with the organizations that offer these services, so when you make the call asking them to help they are ready to do so. 
MWCDC is an excellent example of how, by applying these basic principles, you can succeed in attracting the retail that your community needs and wants. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lesson Learned: The Most Common Streetscape Improvement Mistake

Streetscape improvements are a common and popular way to spruce up a retail district. Sidewalks, curbs, trees, landscaping, etc....the idea is that these improvements will result in a more attractive and welcoming environment for visitors, shoppers, and ultimately businesses. This kind of improvement is relatively easy. Infrastructure money can often be wrestled from Federal and State sources, and the visible improvements are always a favorite of local elected officials, who can often be counted on to contribute additional dollars. So what is wrong with this scenario? Win, win, right?

A new brick sidewalk in Kansas City, KA. Vacancies remain.
If only that were the case. Organizations intent on improving the downtown streetscape should heed this word of warning...avoid installing brick sidewalks and pavers. Communities are increasingly turning away from this once popular option, citing slip and fall lawsuits, on-going maintenance challenges, and increasingly the recognition that brick sidewalks are insignificant to the shopper experience. Consider Salem, MA, where they are actually pulling and paving the brick sidewalks that were installed in the 1990's after complaints from businesses ["Salem pulling, paving downtown brick crosswalks"]. Shoppers want a clean environment, and well maintained concrete sidewalks, for instance, are just as effective not to mention less expensive and easier to maintain. Now THAT is a win, win.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Demystifying community-led retail attraction efforts

NYCSBS Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth DeLeon speaking at the Grand Opening of Island Salad in Brooklyn. A business attracted through support from SBS' Retail Leasing Program.
Yesterday I was excited and honored to attend the Grand Opening of Island Salad in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Island Salad is a wonderful healthy salad bar franchise with three locations in New York City. Attracting a regional independent business like Island Salad to your district, like Bed-Stuy Gateway BID did, is a wonderful accomplishment. What is even more exciting is that the process they followed is not some mystical approach to retail attraction - the process they followed can be replicated in your community.

The Gateway BID is a graduate of the New York City Department of Small Business Services (NYCSBS) NYC Retail Leasing Program. As Senior Director of Retail Attraction, I was charged with designing and exeucting the program in its first year. Over the course of eight months in 2010-2011, together with Merchantville, NJ consultants JGSC Group, we led the Gateway BID staff through a comprehensive approach to retail attraction. The approach was something I brought to SBS from my time at LISC (Local Initiative Support Corporation), where in partnership with ICSC, we created a national program for community-based organizations. It was exciting and heady to apply these same principles across multiple communities in New York. Today, those investments are beginning to bear fruit - and the results are getting great coverage.

In Bed-Stuy, that includes the successful opening of Island Salad. Lisa Thompson, Deputy Director of the BID, was a participant in both the SBS program and the Coro Neighborhood Leadership Program where I also serve as Director. Both of these training programs helped reinforce the lessons on retail prospecting, and Lisa took these lessons to heart. On her sojourns to Harlem, she frequented Island Salad, getting to know the owner, even "friending" them on Facebook. She was also simultaneously beginning to develop relationships with local property owners, per our recommendations, and made sure to keep her fingers on the pulse of available properties coming onto market. The ability to connect a retailer she had cultivated with the right property was a matter of building those relationships and making the connections. It is a casebook study in how a BID should be managing tenant mix. [See Bed-Stuy Patch, "Island Salad Celebrates Grand Opening"]

Another excellent example of outcomes from the program can be found in the South Bronx, where WHEDCO participant Kerry McKlean has been able to reduce the vacancy rate by 8%, from 24%. You can read more about Kerry's efforts in this Crain's piece: "Former 'worst' area is on the mend: Shoppers and retailers rediscover Crotona Park East strip in the Bronx"

Kerry has applied the comphensive approach as well - using market data to identify opportunities, using that information to surgically go after retailers in the niche markets where she can meet three criteria - 1) consumer demand, 2) adequate space, and 3) community desire.

So, what is the approach? In a nutshell, there are four phases to the program.

Phase I. Diagnose your Market Gather data in an effort to understand your district and shoppers. This will help you develop a compelling story to share when marketing your district. That story should communicate your vision and brand clearly and concisely, while providing fact-based evidence of market demand. There are many caveats to these "facts", particularly in communities where census data does not reflect neighborhood change, or where a large office market skews residential income data.

That said, some of the most common fee-based providers of trade area market data are Esri's Business Analyst Online (BAO) and Nielsen Claritas SiteReports. We also advocate, when resource are available, collecting primary data to substantiate your case and better understand your market. Specifically, this includes comprehensive consumer surveys, which are a powerful mechanism to understand customer shopping habits. This valuable data serves as a checks and balances to census generated data. Not only that, but the specificity of the information cannot be beat.

Finally, you can't forget that ultimately, this work is about connecting retailers to available spaces. Take the time to develop an opportunity site inventory. While a comprehensive database is extremely valuable, it can be a resource trap if an exhaustive effort is made too quickly.

Phase II. Develop a Leasing Plan
Once you have your vision in place and your retail categories identified tell EVERYONE. Local business owners, property owners, brokers, etc. Communicate your Leasing Plan far and wide, market it, tell the press about it...get it out in the open.

Phase III. Generate Leads
Develop simple marketing material, identify prospects (there is a difference between prospecting for regional independents versus national retailers...), and make the call. There are subscription services to find some of this information - is one - but much of the work, particular when looking for unique smaller retailers, involves hitting the streets, networking, shopping and eating your way through competitive districts in search of good retailers.

Phase IV. Be Proactive
Once you've made the connection, be ready to help negotiations between landlords and tenants, and once a deal is inked - CELEBRATE! Preferably over good food and drink! Building buzz is an intrigal step in this process. You never know who will read about your district's success, and who in turn will contact you seeking spaces for their business concepts.

This process is a wonderful way in which communities can be proactive in their retail leasing efforts. As a consultant I am often tied up in planning and strategy, so it is always a pleasure to celebrate these wonderful outcomes!

For more information on how this retail attraction program can help your community, contact