Despite concerns from owners of downtown business and building owners about lack of financing for improvements, a consult hired by the city believes that Vandalia’s downtown business district can be revitalized.
About 30 of those business and building owners attended a stakeholder input session held by Jenn Gregory, president of Downtown Strategies, on Monday at city hall.
The city has hired the Alabama-based consult, Mayor Rick Gottman said, as part of the effort to “try to figure out how to rebuild our downtown.”
Gregory said that her firm has about 200 customers and that the plan to work on a revitalization of a community’s downtown business district starts with a market analysis.
That analysis, she said, includes finding out “who is spending money (downtown) and where they’re coming from.”
Studying consumer spending habits help to determine what customers are spending money on, Gregory said.
That analysis, she said, will be combined with “what we hear today,” along with the results of an email survey Downtown Strategies will conduct.
Gregory said that prior to the meeting, she walked through Vandalia’s downtown “to get a good feet of it.”
Using all of that information, the firm will present a strategic plan for the downtown.
“I believe that successful downtowns are tourist attractions,” Gregory said, noting that they're needs to be a plan to attract those tourists.
Part of that, she said, includes having appropriate signage that helps direct those potential customers.
The signage includes that which points out parking areas, a point that was brought up more than once by those attending Monday’s meeting.
For example, Justin Arndt noted that the city has parking lots in the downtown area, “but they aren’t posted.”
Gregory said that as part of its work for the city, Downtown Strategies will “look at opportunities for investments” in downtown buildings and suggest incentives to encourage such projects.
She asked those at the meeting to list the downtown’s assets and issues.
Alderman Bret Brosman noted the presence of the Vandalia Statehouse, and Alderman Ken Hubler added that the downtown has historic buildings in addition to the old state capitol.
Mayor Rick Gottman pointed out projects that have been taken on downtown, including the creation of Charters Patio at Fourth and Gallatin streets, a project funded solely by Willms & Associates.
Gregory said that she noticed during her walk-around of the downtown that the streetscape. “The amount you have invested in on infrastructure looks terrific.”
A bigger part of the two-hour session was spent on challenges and opportunities.
One of the bigger challenges noted was parking.
Arndt, the owner of The Money Pit, in the 500 block of Gallatin Street, said he’s in the busiest block of the downtown and that parking is an ongoing issue.
“I hear it multiple times a week,” he said.
A change in shopping habits is a big deal, several mentioned.
“People will walk a block and a half in Walmart, but only 60 feet downtown,” said Dennis Grubaugh, who owns multiple buildings downtown.
Alderman Ken Hubler agreed. “When I was growing up, people walked (downtown), but it changed.”
However, Anita Gottman, owner of Iya’s and Friends, said she knows of tourists walking up one side of Gallatin Street and down the other.
A discussion about historic buildings downtown and the work needed on some of those buildings took up a large part of the session.
Gregory noticed those buildings. “Your downtown looks really nice,” she said.
It’s just that some need to be updated or renovated. “That’s the biggest I can see,” she said.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities here,” Gregory said.’
She specifically mentioned the area of Fourth and Gallatin streets, with Witness Distillery, Something Special Florist, Charters Patio and Copper Penny.
“Right there is a hub,” she said.
The past practice of not putting For Sale or For Rent signs in vacant buildings, Joy Clymer-Budny said, has bee discouraged, and Gregory suggested proactive signs promoting opportunities.
Building owners such as Angie Rhodes, who owns Gallatin Street Grille with her husband, Rick, said she has paid off her building and that it needs upgrades, but it’s not financially feasible to take on such projects.
That started a discussion on the city’s Tax Increment Financing program.
Rhodes said she has the impression that those making decisions on TIF grants “think they own it and are not willing to put it out.”
She and her husband, Rhodes said, had considered applying for TIF assistance, but found out the application is burdensome.
Other complaints about the TIF program prompted Gottman to tell the crowd that a new advisory board made up of taxing entities contributing TIF funds will be set up in the near future, and that the city will hold a public meeting to explain the program and changes being made.
Gregory told the crowd success stories of her firm have reinforced that “it will not happen easily and it will not happen without collaboration.
“I promise these things work – I have seen it all over the country,” she said. “It takes community collaboration above all.”
Gottman had passed around a signup sheet for those business and building owners who are willing to be a part of a new downtown merchants association.
That group, Gregory said, needs to include people who are willing to be very active.
With much of the talk about the revitalization, Grubaugh said there is one key point.
“Everything boils down to dollars and cents,” he said.