The Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and area governments want to know which products residents are buying out of county, and they’re going to hire a retail firm to find out.
Retail development was once again deemed a priority at the Liberty Countywide Planning Workshop May 30 and 31 in Midway, when a group already targeting solutions from the 2012 workshop presented updates.
The group includes chamber CEO Leah Poole, Liberty County Development Authority marketing coordinator Anna Chafin, and Hinesville Downtown Development Authority executive director Vicki Davis.
Officials suggest that an independent voice from outside the county can help pinpoint areas where existing business lacks and obstacles to development.
The chamber plans to engage Alabama-based Retail Strategies for a $32,000 year, during which they will analyze market and service gaps, then transition into strategic planning and retail recruitment.
Poole said Friday that interested parties and potential funding partners will meet early this week with Retail Strategies to discuss the work.
“We are all moving forward with the planning and hope to be able to fund the contract in the near future,” she said.
While the conversation at the retreat focused on retail development, the women added the consultants also would address dining and entertainment.
“We feel like we need to engage a consulting firm to help us out with this for a number of reasons,” Chafin said. “One of them being that the three of us, while we’ve been intimately involved in this and really believe in it, we feel like we have other day-to-day responsibilities that are keeping us from devoting the time that’s needed to this effort.”
The consultants also can research the leverage they have with developers and pull from the models they’ve used in other communities, she added.
“We’re using a firm that’s recognized and known to be a leader in retail development and attraction, Chaffin said.”
Davis said the firm will identify strengths and weaknesses in the market, available properties and availability of incentives, as well as consumer behavior to create a strategic plan. They also would identify peer communities with wider retail availability and tailor their recruitment efforts at retailers with presences in similar areas.
They also will develop marketing materials for the area and provide monthly reports.
Advantages to the community would be increased tax revenue, job creation, increased industrial recruitment as a result of availability of amenities and increased quality of life, Davis said.
They asked workshop participants — which included each municipal government in the county except Gum Branch and the board of education — to partner in funding the study.
Flemington City Councilwoman Gail Evans suggested business owners be involved.
“I think we need to have some of those people involved in this,” she said. “I think all of them need to know what the intent is here.”
Davis said that’s why the first step is to analyze gaps.
“When we have gaps in our retail offerings, people still have the demand. The demand doesn’t go away because we can’t meet their needs,” Davis said. “So what they end up doing is going someplace else … how we address those gaps may be through new businesses, new entrepreneurial efforts or expansion of existing businesses.”
Poole added that the firm often works with small communities that need to balance “mom and pop” shops as they pursue new companies.
During the workshop debriefing, Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards presentead on behalf of a group that discussed quality of life issues. Retail development was chief among the goals.
“The stakeholders are the retail, the realtors, the local governments have a vested interest. We expand our tax revenues, which allows us to do more, the property owners, the chamber members, the citizenry as a whole…” Edwards said.
Georgia EMC facilitator Niki Knox said that if the group is making the study a priority, they need to follow through on it rather than talking about it.
“I don’t want a year from now for you all to be saying, ‘Well, we talked about that Retail Stategies study, but we weren’t able to raise the money,’” Knox said. “I won’t make you say how much you’re going to give, but I want to see green cards that say you’re all on board.”
Knox was referring to a visual voting system using green cards to show support for a plan. “Because what happens is it’s great and it’s wonderful and yes we’re going to do it while you’re in this room, and then, making it happen?”
Riceboro City Councilman Chris Stacy spoke up.
“I think the big issue is that I would have on this end of the county. My people are going to go to Hinesville, why would the people in Riceboro want to give money to open up a business in Hinesville?” Stacy asked.
“It’s a comprehensive, countywide approach,” Poole said.
“Do you want to have businesses on this end of the county?” Davis asked. “That’s what your money is investing in.”
“They’re not going to just locate businesses in Hinesville,” Poole added.
Stacy said he understood but wanted to be armed with responses to his constituents.
Someone else said that if they could land one good restaurant in Riceboro, Chemtall employees would support it.
Edwards said Hinesville residents also could ask the same question about a countywide analysis.
“Because we are one community working together … I could take it down to a smaller level. I want it in my neighborhood, I don’t want it on the west side,” Edwards said. “We don’t operate like that anymore, and we need to make sure that your folks understand it.”
Previous steps taken include obtaining enterprise, military and opportunity zone tax credits for job-creators, building an interactive map that shows sites available for retail development, and analyzing successes of similarly-composed communities to identify factors for success.