Elkin town officials continue to keep a spotlight on downtown and the need for economic development in the historic area of town. Discussion continued at the commissioners retreat in February.
In information provided by Laura Gaylord, Main Street and community manager for the town, and Leslie Schlender, the town’s economic development director, an analysis of businesses in the Municipal Service District showed there are 116 street-level businesses in the MSD with 70 of those on Main Street. Also, there have been five historic buildings purchased and three non-historic buildings in the MSD, with eight renovations completed or underway.
During 2016, 14 businesses opened in the district and there were 16 closures. In speaking with either those business owners or building owners about the reasons for the closures, Gaylord said the closings weren’t because the owners couldn’t make a living, but instead in majority were due to lifestyle changes.
“We can’t influence lifestyle changes, but we can influence foot traffic,” Gaylord said, adding that increased foot traffic might influence decisions made surrounding lifestyle changes.
“Part of that foot track is self-inflicted,” noted Commissioner Dr. Skip Whitman, explaining, “It only takes two or three times going downtown to find businesses closed before you quit going downtown.”
Other reasons for leaving might have involved building needs that weren’t being addressed by property owners. Gaylord said maintenance of the buildings is needed by property owners, adding that some times the owners are waiting for a new person to lease the space and then the tenant is left doing all the work. “They end up spending $5,000 to $10,000 to make it usable and that loss is money they would spend on inventory and marketing,” she said.
Another building challenge is the high cost for renovation meaning a higher rent cost, and an additional challenge, she noted, was overpriced real estate. “They may be asking $200,000 for a building that hasn’t been renovated since 1970, so that’s why a lot are sitting,” she said.
Some funds already are available to assist businesses, such as matching façade grants. Two of the available granting sources, the Main Street Solutions Fund and the Downtown Redevelopment Fund, which are state granted, already are in use for Elkin, with the Reeves Theater work being partially funded through the solutions fund.
A recent announcement by the state Department of Commerce reported that the North Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority approved 27 grant requests, including one in Elkin for $300,000 to support a Downtown Redevelopment Fund project to renovate the building beside what is now Southern on Main. Once completed the building will house Salem Appraisal Services, as well as other business ventures, according to the state’s news release.
Gaylord and Schlender said what they hope for are more incentives to recruit businesses to downtown. While a couple of proposed incentives were presented to commissioners during the retreat, those have since been put on hold as the legality of offering those type of incentives is researched.
Town officials have come up with some strategies on how to recruit businesses to town, more specifically to downtown Elkin, in spite of not having incentive programs available.
“We are not poaching, we’re not trying to get people to leave other towns, but we tell them we would love if they would open their second location in Elkin,” Schlender said of how officials are handling recruitment of established businesses.
She brought up the question of whether the town should advertise it’s looking for downtown businesses, using the example when Statesville ran a full page ad in The Tribune seeking out prospective businesses some years ago.
Another program being used is a program called STEP from the North Carolina Rural Center. The STEP group in Elkin has decided to adopt its own identity, E3 – Energizing Elkin Entrepreneurs.
That E3 group has four people who are specific to downtown, but the rest of the 19 people are from areas all around town, Schlender explained. “This is creating a business mentor support group,” she said.
Those in the group have been trained on what the town can do to assist businesses and what other resources are available to help them, she explained. “It is very much a traditional business retention and expansion program.”
The volunteers with E3 visit businesses and interview them to find out what help they may need, and then they follow up by providing the resources to address their needs. “We follow up and make the resource connection,” said Schlender.
“One thing to point out here, you remember the list of people involved there, everybody in that room said we need to focus on downtown first, and one four were from downtown in that list,” she told the commissioners, as debate had been heard on whether the town should help just businesses downtown or expand that throughout town.
“They said if we do downtown right, the rest will get done right,” she added.
Schlender and Gaylord also went over the various ways Elkin is marketed, including downtown Elkin, to both locals and potential visitors, through billboards, brochures and through hosting travel writers who follow up by writing articles about the opportunities for visitors to the area.
They said the next steps to continue focusing on entrepreneur development downtown is ongoing recruitment, and holding a meeting of MSD building owners on March 21 at 5:30 p.m. at Elkin Public Library.
“When you look at [the sheet provided during the meeting], we’ve got building issues. We’ve heard places aren’t lease ready or lease friendly, so we have the building owner issue to conquer,” said Schlender.
The plan for the meeting is for Schlender, Gaylord and George Crater, the town’s planning director, to sit down with the business owners and discuss the needs in downtown and go over the codes that govern the condition of the buildings.
“We’ve been nice for a while, and maybe they’ll do the right thing. Now it is time to say there are codes you aren’t living up to,” said Schlender, of what could happen if building owners don’t work to improve and maintain the condition of their buildings.
“I don’t want to get administrative warrants to go in, I want to work with the people,” said Crater of a step that could be taken if owners don’t meet codes for condition. “I’m going to start in April and given them 30 days, and tell them what as far as code enforcement needs to be repaired. There is no gray area, and if it’s not addressed in 30 days, they get a violation.”
If the owners don’t work to fix the enforcement violations, the town can then do the work and put a lien on the property so that if it is ever sold the town would recoup the money put into the work, Crater explained.
Schlender said the building conditions are important, because “there is less building left for that investor to purchase” if they fall into disrepair.
Commissioner Terry Kennedy said he was in agreement with the enforcement, because “they are hurting the neighboring property owners’ property.”
Whitman also expressed support for the enforcement.
Crater noted that all of the town’s ordinances say they can “enlist Surry or Wilkes building department, but if they come in, they can lock the building and not work with them” if they have violations.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.