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Retailers moving back to Main Street as downtown housing options expand

The pendulum is swinging the other way. For many years, downtowns suffered from an exodus of retail businesses to malls and big box retailers located on the outskirts of town. But recent national studies show that retailers are slowly moving back to Main Street to diversify their storefronts.

The 2007 National Retail Federation Retail Real Estate study conducted by AMR Research found that retailers plan to have 11% of their stores in urban street-front locations by the end of year, compared with 8% last year. To compensate, companies have cut back slightly on their number of mall and strip mall locations from 44% this year compared to 48% last year.

Bob Wilson, director of the Mississippi Main Street Association, is happy to see the trend and thinks it will continue. Wilson said not only are many of the state’s downtown areas seeing more retail locations open, but there is a popular trend towards development of housing downtown over storefronts.

Wilson said the downtown housing trend is being seen in the state’s metropolitan areas like Jackson and Gulfport, and also in smaller towns. Downtown residents tend to be young professionals and seniors with a little higher income, and who require different types of amenities including higher end and specialty retail.

Main Street communities are now having better success attracting new retail to downtown areas because of the trends toward downtown housing. It helps that in many areas historic homes located within walking distance to downtown areas are also increasingly popular.

“We are not only seeing a trend for residential to come back to Main Street areas, but we are also seeing a trend for people to come back in and restore those historic homes located in the heart of town,” Wilson said.

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) is one of the sponsors of a workshop in Biloxi focusing on business retention, expansion and recruiting for the downtown district. Wilson said that is evidence that retailers are increasingly interested in downtown areas.

“ICSC members are looking for things other than conventional shopping centers,” Wilson said. “Retailers as a whole, whether national or local, are looking at downtowns because incentives are in place, infrastructure is in place and there is a higher income level of residents who congregate in those areas. Over the years as merchants moved to big boxes and malls, it left a void in downtown. When retailers and recruiters look at that, they see areas that are severely underserved.”

Wilson said downtown housing in Jackson has gotten a big boost with recent products such as the Electric Building and the Plaza projects that are very visible and let developers know there is a growing market there. He said very little marketing had to be done to fill up residential units being constructed in downtown Jackson, and the synergy has sparked several other new projects.

“In five years, there will be 1,000 to 1,500 residential units in downtown Jackson,” Wilson said. “Downtown living is increasingly popular all over the country, and now in Mississippi, as well.”

Columbus has made the most progress of Mississippi cities in developing downtown apartments.

“People want to be in the heart of the city,” said Jan Miller, the former Columbus Main Street Manager who is now Central District Director for the Mississippi Main Street program. “They really want to be where the action is. In North Mississippi in the Golden Triangle, we have been so blessed with a surge of industrial growth and people coming into our community, which has done nothing but strengthen our downtown.”

When industrial prospects come to town, they consider the quality of education but they also look to see if the area has a vibrant downtown.

“Everybody has land for industry,” Miller said. “They aren’t necessarily interested in that. Prospects want to know if their employees and co-workers will want to live here. Does it have what they need?”

Columbus currently has 130 downtown apartments. Those apartments were popular with SeverCorr employees who relocated to Columbus to help open the new steel mill.

“SeverCorr put their front-line employees up in those executive apartments,” Miller said. “Downtown housing makes your downtown very vibrant, and it feeds the synergy of the community.”

Columbus is seeing the third wave of restorations downtown. In August 2006, there were $1.6 million worth of purchases of buildings and property.

“We are continuing to see new businesses pop up and people renovating buildings downtown,” Miller said. “I foresee we will continue that trend. We are seeing similar trends in Greenwood and other towns in Mississippi. In Jackson people are moving back to the Belhaven and Fondren areas. It can happen even in the smallest town like New Albany and Water Valley. In Oxford, property values are so that high young marrieds are moving to Water Valley. The amount of work being done on the Coast is tremendous. We are reclaiming our communities.”

Miller said in many cases, the new residents are people who grew up in the town, and have come back to help reclaim the downtown areas. That has resulted in a surge of redevelopments.

“We like it because there is a whole new group of volunteers and concerned citizens who do care about preserving what was there when they were growing up,” Miller said. “With the Internet, we can work anywhere in the world, so we choose where we want to live. So, we’re seeing people take hold of these communities and start to revitalize them. I really think we will see this continue across the State of Mississippi.”

The Main Street programs focus on four major areas: historic preservation, good design, economic development including recruiting and retaining retailers, and promotions.

“If you have all four and they are working properly, then you do have a good balance and that is what makes this all very, very successful,” Miller said. “We see that when people work the Main Street program, that is what happens.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.


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