Tuesday, October 13, 2015

TOP STORY >> Main St. mission backed by state

Leader staff write

Mark Miller of Main Street Arkansas encouraged the Downtown Jacksonville Business Association at its Monday meeting to join the state agency’s network, which offers free consultations and quarterly training sessions.

The only requirement is that the organization in charge must have a $5,000 annual budget and a liaison, possibly someone with the local chamber of commerce, to attend required workshops.

Free services Jacksonville businesses would receive through the network include advice from an exterior designer, an interior designer and Miller, who is Main Street Arkansas’ small business consultant.

Becoming an Arkansas Downtown Network community could be just the first step for Jacksonville, too, association members learned.

The next-level designation, which Miller said would probably take three or four years for the community to attain, is “Main Street City.” Main Street Cities receive $15,000 a year from the state agency to spend on revitalization efforts and must hire a director who implements Main Street Arkansas’ four-point approach.

The agency will likely accept new Downtown Network communities in 2016, and the association should fill out an application then, he continued.

When asked if there was a limit on how many communities would be accepted into the network, Miller said they varied. Passionate, trainable individuals with people skills are what Main Street Arkansas looks for because those qualities lead to success, he noted.

He continued, “To me, one of the most important things of being in the Main Street network is, during those quarterly trainings, you get to work with your peers throughout the state. So, you basically, never have to recreate the wheel.

“I almost guarantee you, whatever problem you’re having here in Jacksonville, someone else has encountered that somewhere else in the state and, if not in the state, you have access to the national Main Street Center list serve, too.”

That list includes contacts from 43 state programs.

He added that a former director told him, “Don’t strain your eyes, plagiarize.” Miller told the association that business owners should go outside their own shops, find an idea elsewhere in the state or country and make it their own.

Main Street Arkansas is part of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, which falls under the state’s Department of Arkansas Heritage, Miller explained at the beginning of his presentation.

He touted that, since its formation in 1984, Main Street Arkansas has seen over $145 million in investments finance 3,272 facade renovations, rehabilitations and new construction projects.

Miller said Main Street Arkansas also receives guidance from the National Main Street Center, which provides the four-point approach. The approach includes having an organization working toward the same goal and focuses on promotion, economic restructuring and design.

The services offered through the network cater to that approach.

As the small business consultant, Miller explained, he goes into stores when requested and tells them what can be done differently.

He evaluates store operations, branding, conducts a market and sales analysis and teaches workshops on a variety of topics.

Miller explained how owners and employees of a store can lose sight of little things because they become complacent from being there every day.

But those little things, such as the layout that directs customers’ foot traffic, can develop into big things that affect a business, he warned.

Miller also said he “preaches” about having exceptional customer service because it’s the one thing owners have 100 percent control over.

He remarked, too, on the “billboard principal” with a PowerPoint slide stating that 53 percent of shoppers base their initial perception of a store and decision to shop there on the storefront.

That’s where Main Street Arkansas’ exterior designer can help.

This staffer offers exterior rehabilitation advice for facades, reviews streetscapes, signs and planning; gives written recommendations and resources; and draws facade renderings.

Miller explained, “He has that capability that he can see a storefront, and he can tell you what it should look like, especially if you give him a certain budget.”

But a business also has to look good when customers walk into it, hence the agency’s interior designer, who offers advice on rehabbing the inside of a store, holds window/merchandise display workshops, provides conceptual design plans and hands out design research from building projects.

Miller noted that window displays don’t cost a lot, and owners “really get a lot of bang for the buck” with them.

Retailers can work together on window displays by using items from another store to complement their merchandise while advertising for their downtown neighbor, he said.

Miller also suggested having big items rather than a lot of small things in a window because a storefront has just three seconds to catch a driver’s attention and 7.5 seconds to attract someone who is walking by it.

About first part of the four-point approach, he explained that Main Street Arkansas prefers to work with a nonprofit organization because it is easier to fill out IRS paperwork and administer grants to a nonprofit group.

About the promotion point, he said that includes looking at a community’s image, retail market and special events.

Miller suggested, “You always want to have at least one good (big event), but you want to be careful that you don’t have too many because it can consume your organization.”

Economic restructuring he described as “making the cash registers ring” by filling vacant commercial and retail spaces.

Mayor Gary Fletcher pointed out that many of the network cities have historical two- or three-story brick buildings. Jacksonville doesn’t have those because it grew in the shopping center era when disposable buildings were popular, he said.

Miller responded, “You just have to find out what your amenities are here and what you can do to build upon them...Or create.”

He elaborated on that later, saying, “The key is, because people are looking for experiences anywhere, when they shop, so what you need to find are those unique, niche-type businesses that you’re not going to find in a shopping mall or big box retailer to make people want to spend the day here shopping and learning what your community is about.”

One piece of advice he had was getting some niche stores to sell merchandise related to the shooting range, as that is unique to Jacksonville.

Miller also said Jacksonville should take advantage of the “captive audience” it has in Little Rock Air Force Base personnel, a demographic that is often well-paid, by hosting smaller events that appeal to military families.

Asked about how Main Street Arkansas helps communities with funding, he lamented that it used to have a larger program with a competitive revitalization grant and a matching slipcover grant. But those were ended by budget cuts many state entities have suffered from.

There are many similar grants out there though, Miller noted.

Association member Roberta McGrath mentioned to him that a nonprofit is working to restore the historical part of the city — old buildings by the railroad tracks — and turn that district into a draw for tourists who would have to drive through downtown to get there. He voiced support for that idea.

Miller’s advice also included having — once Jacksonville becomes a Main Street City — the director’s salary come from a variety of sources and having shops open non-traditional hours, such as 9:30 or 10 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m.

Association member Patrick Thomas asked him whether flea markets could be a draw. Miller responded those can be good or bad, but the most successful ones have been more selective in the merchandise they sell.

He said flea markets that choose to be “upscale” could attract visitors to a community.