Business reels in retailers in rural locales

Communities in Arkansas consult Retail Strategies

Across Arkansas, it's not uncommon for amateur anglers to hire guides who know the best fishing spots and supply all the materials needed to land a big catch.

Rural leaders in the state are doing much the same thing to attract retail businesses to their communities. The small cities are turning more and more to a Birmingham, Ala.-based firm to build marketing plans that are the bait they need to reel in retailers.

The effort is gaining traction and has helped Newport persuade Cobblestone to build a 54-room hotel. Harrison attracted a Planet Fitness to fill an abandoned discount store. Paragould lured a Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburger outlet to the site of a former funeral home.

State economic development officials are paying attention.

"A lot of these small communities aren't going to be in competition for a large company we're recruiting," Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said. "But they do need a strategy to drive more retail frontage for that community. It's a different approach for economic development, but it is time that we look at those rural communities and think about how we do economic development there."

Retail Strategies is a consulting firm that works with municipalities on retail recruitment, retail education and downtown revitalization efforts while also providing small business technical support. Retail Academy was formed as an offshoot about six years ago to focus on supporting rural areas.

"Retail Academy shows rural communities how to speak the language of retailers, how to reach out to retailers and how to identify what makes retailers tick," said Clay Craft, the company's vice president of retail services who helped lead a recent workshop in Arkansas. "The Retail Academy is the educational component of our company."

On Nov. 2, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission coordinated a daylong Retail Academy session including city and economic development officials representing Corning, Mena, Prescott and Warren.

Before the workshop, community officials provided the Retail Academy team with detailed information about their city and its potential retail needs. The academy team then builds a community profile and prepares a marketing strategy for each area, including a list of up to a dozen retailers that could be interested in expanding in rural Arkansas.

Participants in the workshop applauded the effort and noted the initiative provides a targeted approach with demographic and community details they did not have and don't possess the resources to gather.

"We're small-town America and we don't have the financial or personnel resources to develop an economic development plan for our community," Mena Mayor Seth Smith said. "This gave us a lot of information about what would be a good fit for our community and who we should approach. Before this, we didn't know who to really call.

"Now we are armed with information to know who to go after -- who's expanding and who might be interested in a community like Mena. This was really an eye-opener for us," Smith said. "This kind of opens some new doors."

Matt Twyford, director of the community development division at AEDC, helped coordinate the workshop after learning about the success the Birmingham company had in other Arkansas cities.

"We wanted to see if there was an opportunity to develop a trial run of the Retail Academy in Arkansas communities and to find out if it was something we wanted to pursue beyond the first workshop," Twyford said. "We are monitoring it to see what the results are of this first run before we make a final determination. If we see some positive results, this is likely something we would want to do more of going forward."

In Arkansas, Retail Strategies has provided eight communities with recruitment services and 13 communities have been through the Retail Academy program.

Newport is one of several Arkansas communities that have contracted directly with the Retail Strategies group, signing a three-year consulting deal to promote the city to retailers. Along with landing a new Cobblestone hotel, Newport attracted a Factory Connection clothing store, according to Jon Chadwell, the city's economic development director.

The Jackson County community of about 8,000 residents previously was not high on the list of consideration for retailers looking to locate new stores, Chadwell said. And, even if it was, the city didn't have the right bait to hook a business.

"One of the big benefits was just helping us to understand and to gather the data that retail prospects look for," Chadwell said. "It's different than what manufacturing prospects need. This definitely gave us a more targeted approach."

Officials in Harrison, which has a population of about 14,000, also didn't realize the community's potential to attract retailers.

Community leaders participated in a Retail Academy workshop in 2020 and learned the city's population balloons to about 65,000 daily when workers flood in from other areas, according to Bob Largent, president and chief executive officer of the Harrison Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Planet Fitness took a look and opened a new workout facility in May. Following that, national retailer Dunkin opened a doughnut shop and Scooter's opened a drive-thru coffee shop just a few blocks away a month later. Golden Ticket has opened a new cinema, replacing a theater that closed.

Two other national food chains are looking at the north Arkansas community, Largent said.

"The value the Retail Academy brings is you get specific, by name recommendations and information about your retail area," Largent said. "It was tailored to us and the information we obtained from them was phenomenal, and it was something we had never had before. We now have the data that every single retail organization in the country uses as part of their decision-making process before going into a local area."

Retail Academy provides each community with marketing plans that include vital demographic information such as education levels, household income, salaries, labor force and the core customer base of shoppers who either live in or visit a community to buy goods.

Each community also gets a list of about a dozen companies to recruit, businesses that include grocery and shoe stores, general retailers, hotel and food chains, pizza outlets and fitness centers.

The goal is to capture potential dollars that can be spent on retail goods and boost a community's tax revenue. Commerce Secretary Preston said a lively retail base enhances quality of life in small communities, strengthening their ability to attract larger industrial facilities.

"That could eventually give them the wherewithal to compete on larger projects," Preston said. "They need quality of life things that will help them in the long run."

The workshop held earlier this month cost $40,000 and was partially funded with nearly $16,000 from a federal grant, Twyford said, noting the remainder of the funding was provided by the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, Southwestern Electric Power Co. and economic development programs at Arkansas State University and the University of Central Arkansas.

"We believe that retail development in rural Arkansas is just as important as the recruitment of manufacturing and large industries," said Rob Roedel, spokesman for the rural electric co-ops. "While we will not abandon efforts to recruit and attract large industries, this project equips local communities with training and plans to recruit retailers to Arkansas communities."

Warren Mayor Denisa Pennington is hopeful state officials commit to providing the resources that allow rural communities to continue casting for retailers.

"I hope that there will be more efforts for other communities like the ones in this project," she said. "I hope the state will look at this as valuable for our rural communities -- we need all the help we can get. Bringing in small entities is just as impactful for our economy as big projects for larger communities."