Months of debate about the state of downtown Raleigh has produced one common theme: The city’s core needs more retail stores.
“In a revitalization, the last thing to happen is retail,” said Bill King, planning and development manager for Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
So the city government is talking about new ways it might give retailers a helpful push. The Raleigh City Council this week authorized creation of a task force to figure out what’s holding back new businesses in downtown and beyond, and how to clear those roadblocks.
The group will have its work cut out for it: A store can be a riskier venture even than a restaurant or a bar, King said.
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Pam Blondin, owner of the gift shop DECO Raleigh, says she only recently started to pay herself more money than she does her employees.
“You don’t bring home pay for the first year,” she said.
Blondin has sold an eclectic collection of art, clothing, jewelry and pottery at the intersection of South Salisbury and Hargett streets for nearly three years. In the last year, she has heard from dozens of prospective retailers seeking her advice – and only one, an ice-cream shop called Treat, ever opened for business.
“For every 10 or 12 good ideas, maybe one or two are going to get a door open,” she said.
Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin brought the idea of a task force to the Raleigh City Council last month. She had been hearing for months from retailers who were frustrated by a lack of incentives and physical space for their ventures, she said.
Baldwin wants the new group, which economic development director James Sauls will assemble in the coming weeks, to examine both downtown and other retail areas throughout the city.
“The city really hasn’t done anything,” Baldwin said. “I think our attitude has been, ‘If we build it, they will come.’”
Of course, some have come already. Downtown Raleigh has seen a crop of new retail businesses along with the new apartments, eateries and visitors who have arrived since the recession.
The Downtown Raleigh Alliance reported earlier this year that 32 new retailers had come to downtown and remained open in 2015. The alliance counts about 70 stores on its website.
For now, though, there are few places for new businesses to go. The storefront vacancy rate for feasible retail spaces was 1.9 percent at the end of 2014, the alliance found.
And when there are opportunities, a potential business may not have access to the bank loans and money it needs, or may be muscled out by a more-promising nightlife venture.
“A lot of the retailers attracted downtown are these small, independent, local concepts, and they don’t have a ton of financing, necessarily,” King said.
Sauls, the economic development director, said that the new task force will look at ways to close that financial gap, helping businesses to prepare spaces and get on their feet.
Currently, the city’s only monetary help for shops comes through grants that provide up to $5,000 to update a building’s facade.
“We’ve started the conversation with council about creating the toolkit,” Sauls said. “That could come in the form of incentives, grants, expedited permitting. There’s just a litany of things that cities can use to get new development.”
Blondin thinks that good advice may be just as important.
“Maybe it’s not about throwing cash out there, so much as throwing a little bit of cash and a lot of knowledge and resources,” she said.
Blondin says she also has had a change of heart since she arrived about one particular idea: Maybe everything doesn’t need to be local.
At first, she said, “I had this vision of all these wonderful local little shops, creating this dynamic that’s only Raleigh.”
Now, she says, “I’m starting to think that what we need are a balance of the right anchors, that might be national (chains), but they’re proven concepts that could be enticed here – and we know they’re not going to leave in a year.”