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Liberty struggling to attract retail business

Population density, military, access play into decisions

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POSTED: November 26, 2012 11:58 a.m.
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While Liberty County-based stores have many products residents would want, experts say residents too often think of Savannah or Brunswick first as a destination to shop.

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Black Friday shopping began earlier than ever this year, with stores like Target, Toys R Us and Sears opening on Thanksgiving in an effort to beat the competition with sales and incentives.
The National Retail Federation projects that $586.1 billion in holiday retail sales this year, but most Liberty Countians likely will take their money outside the county to be part of that spending.
Despite reports of booming population, falling unemployment rates and stable personal-income growth, the Hinesville area still lacks the big-box variety that exists in nearby Savannah and Brunswick.
The shortage of shopping destinations affects both quality of life and the local economy, as shoppers have reduced access to purchasing opportunities, and Liberty municipalities are losing sales-tax revenue to larger markets.
And it’s an issue that’s been on the radar for years. In March, leaders deemed retail attraction and retention as one of their top priorities for the second consecutive year during the Liberty County Planning Retreat.
Experts agree that luring retail lies in having community traits that companies desire — but that’s a tall order when the corporations are mum about their selection criteria.
“Everybody likes to keep it close to the vest,” said Jim O’Bryan, the retail-commercial development manager for Georgia Electric Membership Corp., a statewide trade association that serves electric corporations, including Coastal Electric Cooperative and Canoochee Electric Cooperative.
“Hinesville is a great community,” O’Bryan said. “I’ve been down there several times, and to me, the perception is everything’s clean; service is always good when I’m there.”
But for retailers, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And what lies beneath is a complex formula.

Community dynamics

One of the greatest facets of Hinesville works both for and against its chances of recruitment: Fort Stewart and its transient population.
On the positive side, Fort Stewart supplements the area’s population and is the core of its economy. It also brings a young demographic.
“Retailers consider them to have a lot of disposable income,” said commercial real-estate agent Jimmy Shanken, an associate with Coldwell Banker, Holtzman Realtors. “At 40-something, you’re thinking about retirement; at 20-something, you’re thinking about the here and now.”
But the Army population also is at risk of leaving or being reduced at any time, whether due to deployments or federal budget cuts.
Shanken said in early November that failure of Capitol Hill legislators to pass a balanced budget — and the looming sequester that mandates cuts from all departments across the board — halted developers in their tracks.
And even without a fiscal cliff, O’Bryan said military populations still create uncertainty.
“When they know there’s going to be a deployment, they realize, ‘Gosh, they could take a lot of money and take a lot of people out of the community at one time,’” O’Bryan said. “I don’t know about you, but personally, I would like to eliminate or decrease the uncertainty in my life as much as possible — so that adds an emotional response from the retail community right there.”
O’Bryan added that discounted shopping opportunities for soldiers and their dependents at the PX are potential competition to outside retailers.
Household income also is a concern.
“Let’s face it: If the income levels are lower, then you will be spending less money,” O’Bryan said.

Geographic comparisons

Another element is Liberty County’s proximity to the Savannah and Brunswick trade markets, both O’Bryan and Georgia Retail Association spokesman John Fleming said.
While Hinesville has clothing options like Goody’s, It’s Fashion Metro and Cato, the larger cities are considered to be “destination draws” with department store-anchored malls, more restaurant options and more variety.
“They’re counting on the fact that the folks in Liberty County will very readily and happily drive over to their store and shop, and they know that you probably will because there’s basically no retail stores there,” O’Bryan said.
Retailers want to be in high-traffic areas — and the county’s lack of visible presence along the Interstate-95 corridor could be a hindrance, O’Bryan said.
Though Liberty County has frontage along the corridor that carries between 60,000 and 70,000 motorists daily, little of its development is visible to passers-by, which tells retailers that their inland business would rely more strongly on local customers.
And while the county does boast an estimated 2011 Census population of  65,451 — and serves many of the 15,136 Long County residents — Fleming said retailers often give more weight to population density than to raw population numbers.

Location is everything

Shanken agrees location is a priority for developers.
“Everybody wants to be on top of Walmart,” he said, pointing to an area map broken down by numbered zones. “What they don’t realize is the proximity to these gates … They don’t really understand the traffic flows.”
And it’s not the intersection of Highway 84 and Veterans Parkway they’re seeking — they want proximity to the one retail destination that most consumers already are patronizing.  
But because the location is in such high demand, it drives up the value of the land, which may turn developers away.
Shanken said “a certain chicken franchise” has an interest in the area but has not been able to find the right location that meets its land budget.
Online traffic information also skews prospects’ understanding of local geography.
For example, Shanken showed a database with traffic rings to show the population within one-, three- and five-mile radii from USA Gasoline, a frequently used landmark for its proximity to Fort Stewart and other businesses.
Fort Stewart residents do not fall within those rings, and it only captures a small portion of Hinesville residents. Results are similar for three-, five- and 10-minute drive time reports.
“So if you’re sitting in Orlando, Fla., or you’re sitting in Lexington, Ky., and you’ve never been to Hinesville, Ga., and you’re using this site to do business … the information isn’t exactly correct for our market, and that is a problem for us,” Shanken said.
So how can commercial brokers convince prospects that other locations would be just as lucrative? Shanken said the key is getting them to visit and see traffic patterns in action.
“When the soldiers are home, 84 and 196 look the same,” Shanken said. “They’re going to all the outlying areas; so if you have a good retail store, they’re going to come to you anyway.”
But that’s much easier to do with smaller, more regional companies and restaurant franchises than it is with large corporations.
For example, Shanken recently turned the tide with Panera franchisee Rich Connolly Sr., who was reluctant at first to invest in a location in Flemington.
Shanken showed the franchisee the homes surrounding the location and the through-traffic that passes by. It worked — the bread company confirmed that it is opening a location in Hinesville, and there now is a Panera banner on the front of the former Shoney’s on Highway 84.   
Another issue is lack of available class-A retail space, Shanken said.

Influence transcends local climate

Beyond local factors, the global and national climates also affect business-expansion decisions.
“It’s been very difficult in the past few years to get any kind of new store built,” Fleming said, citing the recession. “A lot of stores just pulled back — you saw some retail chains closing stores that weren’t making as much money ...”
The Georgia Retail Association spokesman was not able to provide data on store openings and closures because it does not track such trends quantifiably, Fleming said.
But Shanken affirmed that prospects, including Starbucks, have taken an interest in Hinesville. But many told him they were awaiting the outcome of the election.
And since then, markets have not looked promising.
Stocks have fallen since President Barack Obama was re-elected alongside a divided Congress, and The Associated Press reported Nov. 15 that concern over political budget wrangling has prompted investors to sell. At press time, the fiscal cliff affecting markets and local government entities still had not been averted.

Taking steps to resolve the issue

A local retail committee was commissioned during the March planning retreat where the retail issue again was identified.
The committee includes Liberty County Chamber of Commerce CEO Leah Poole, Liberty County Development Authority marketing coordinator Anna Chafin and Hinesville Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Vicki Davis.
So far, the group has consolidated more localized site selection data on jump drives that can be shared with potential developers, Poole said. The data includes demographic information, employer information, newspaper articles and a better look at traffic data.
“I had an investor out of Savannah call, and I put it in the mail to him, and he said ‘You just did all my homework for me,’” Poole said. “It makes it so much easier for them, and it also helps us get the right information out.”
The HDDA also has commissioned a $3,000 market analysis with Arnett Muldrow & Associates that includes retail leakage and inflow projections.
A report of the sales leakage — or local money that is being spent outside of the area — is slated to be presented to the Hinesville City Council in December. Those numbers could help demonstrate the area’s retail potential.
The committee also plans to conduct an analysis of existing retail and identify gaps in service that can be filled, Poole said. So far, a funding source remains uncertain, and the chamber is considering doing the study in-house.
O’Bryan, who also has spoken with the group, recommended that community leaders pursue shops with locations in similarly situated communities.  
A retail committee PowerPoint said the group is eyeing Valdosta, Augusta and Tifton.
The equation also includes government tax abatements and establishing code provisions that are developer-friendly, O’Bryan said.
But one existing local business gives O’Bryan hope for the area’s commercial growth.
“Quite frankly, I think Hinesville is blessed to have the Kroger there …,” O’Bryan said. “Statesboro does not have a Kroger or Publix — think about that — and they’ve got a college of nearly 20,000 people.”

 

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