Small Town Main Street program provides advice to Saluda leaders

Published 2:03 pm Thursday, February 28, 2013

Saluda received generally high marks for the town’s appearance and for businesses’ ability to attract clientele during a Feb. 19 presentation by a representative of the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s Small Town Main Street (STMS) program.

“[Saluda has] a good thing going on,” said Sherry B. Adams, western North Carolina coordinator for STMS, “with very few vacancies.”
Adams complimented those in Saluda on a job well done. For the .16-mile downtown, and the 1-mile radius, “You guys should really, in most categories represented, pat yourselves on the back.”

In 2012, officials of the NC Office of Urban Development, designated Saluda as a North Carolina Small Town Main Street community. Last September, a team of Department of Commerce officials spent a day interviewing downtown stakeholders, from citizens to property and business owners, town officials and business and educational leaders. In addition to Saluda’s approximately one-sixth-mile-long downtown Main Street, Adams pointed out the importance of the 1- and 5-mile radiuses from the downtown.

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According to study results, the 5-mile radius has a demand of some $95 million in potential annual retail activity, but the current supply is about $24 million, meaning about 25 percent of potential demand is being met. The unmet demand is termed “retail leakage,” said Adams. Most of that, she explained, occurs in the 5-mile radius.

The good news from those figures is that demand is so heavy for such a small area; the 5-mile radius contains some 9,000 residents. For instance, Adams, reported, restaurant “leakage is some $10 million annually, but she indicated that capturing some 20 percent of that amount would be very good.

To boost retail income in various areas, Adams suggested using niche markets, including clothing, shoes, specialty foods and certain groceries to satisfy more potential demand. She also noted the $8.2 million loss in groceries is not enough to support a large supermarket. Adams’ advice was simple to retailers.

“Expand on what your offerings are, if you can,” she said.

Saluda Mayor Fred Baisden said Adams’ presentation provided good information.

“I think if a lot of the shop owners can utilize this information, they’ll grow their businesses,” Baisden said, agreeing for example that merchants could sell, for example, more grocery items.

“You can only sell so much wine and so much jelly,” said Baisden, agreeing with Adams that there’s more to success than catering to tourists. 

Noting the oft-heard importance of “location, location, location,” Adams recommended that owners of new businesses should look for a “complementary cluster,” or businesses that will attract clientele also interested in the new business’ products or services.

Survey results, said Adams, indicated that most potential clientele who shop outside of Saluda, do so in or near Hendersonville, where they find big box stores, more restaurants and other businesses the population of Saluda cannot support. That’s where niche marketing can help, she said.

Another potential tool, Adams suggested to downtown retailers, is to stay open later in the evening to possibly accommodate residents who work. On the other hand, Adams noted many drivers on Interstate 26 follow their curiosity and venture into the town to see what it’s like, and like what they see.

While tourism has increased steadily in western North Carolina, including Polk County and Saluda, Adams cautioned that a mix of businesses will contribute much more to the town’s success.

“Tourism is important,” she admitted, “but it’s not enough to base a whole . . . program on.”

Among the demographic groups Adams discussed was Generation X, comprised of individuals born from 1964 through 1981. As a group, Adams noted, they steer toward more functional products, preferring quality rather than prestige, and excellent value for their money. Often that means wanting a connection to locally-produced food, and memorable experiences. Some 1,000 residents in the 5-mile radius are between the ages of 15 and 44, said Adams. She recommended business owners consider their needs.

Adams also suggested officials identify potential businesses to add to the current mix, and promote existing properties. She also said Saluda should conduct an annual retail assessment, and determine how relevant the 2003 comprehensive plan is to today’s small town Main Street dynamics.