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Reaching for retail
Views vary on proposed new effort
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Bill (left) and Will Vaughn are shown outside their J&R Management Inc. office on Church Street in Martinsville. Retail growth will follow economic growth, Bill Vaughn said, adding, “If there is money to be made in this area, the retailers will come.” (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Creating a new office to focus on developing and expanding retail businesses in Martinsville in Henry County sounds like a good idea, but is it? That depends upon whom you ask.

Many say it already is being done; some say it is needed; and others, such as Bill Vaughn, are undecided.

“I don’t know whether or not the government has a role in that,” said Vaughn, of J&R Management in Martinsville. “One question that comes to mind is how would it be administered and the fairness issue” of offering incentives to entice retailers to the area.

“Is it fair to incentivize a new retailer to come to this area and put three other companies out of business? There is only so much to go around,” said Vaughn, whose firm manages Patrick Henry Mall, Collinsville Shopping Center, the Dutch Inn Plaza and other sites throughout the area.

Developers, retailers and site selection experts “have very sophisticated tools to check demographics of areas to determine the potential profitability, and these folks are working on site selection years in advance,” he said. “Naturally, they are going to go to the most promising sites first, and if the demographics” in a particular community “don’t fit their model, you get shifted to the back of the line.”

For instance, “say Martinsville and Henry County is on their radar, but not at this time because of demographics, income levels and unemployment,” Vaughn said. “Basically, it’s real simple. It all gets down to economics ... . They are not going to come here if they don’t think they can be profitable.”

Vaughn said incentives may prompt developers or retailers to “take a look at us, but I can’t see any retailer coming here if they can’t sustain profitability.”

Retail growth will follow economic growth, he said. “If there is money to be made in this area, the retailers will come.”

“And they will come quickly,” said Will Vaughn, also of the property management firm.

The Henry County Board of Supervisors recently included retail development as a goal for the upcoming year, based on a concept proposed by Horsepasture District Supervisor Debra Buchanan in January.

She asked the board for input on creating an office to focus on expanding the area’s retail sector. She also suggested housing the office with the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., and approaching The Harvest Foundation to pay for it.

Allyson Rothrock, executive director of Harvest, said Friday that the foundation has not been approached about the idea and, as far as she knows, there have been no discussions about it with Harvest board members.

“I honestly don’t think” that Harvest should take on the effort, Rothrock said. Harvest already partners with the EDC, and she said she would defer to the EDC’s opinions on retail development.

Mark Heath, president and CEO of the EDC, said the agency already is involved in retail development.

“I would suggest that maybe we haven’t done a good job of calling it that, but we are involved in retail,” he said, “But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do more.”

Recent retail projects the EDC has been involved with include a new hardware store in Ridgeway and Rising Sun Breads, Heath said.

Officials from the Northwest True Value store “called us and they had done their own work” before looking for a location in Henry County, he said.

Retailers “have access to their own databases, and they determined they could generate the volumes (of business) they were looking for” in Henry County, Heath said. The EDC helped Northwest True Value look for alternative sites and helped with zoning and other issues.

The EDC also paid for environmental tests needed at the site, just as “we would do for anybody,” Heath said.

He explained that retail businesses do not qualify for state incentives such as those from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund or money from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission.

Some, like Rising Sun Breads, may receive a marketing co-op grant, Heath said. The Martinsville bakery “is a homegrown organic business” that worked with the EDC’s Lisa Fultz.

Fultz, who heads the EDC’s Small, Minority & Entrepreneurial Division, worked with Rising Sun owner Darla Main-Schneider to develop a business plan and help see it through to fruition, he said.

“We are involved in retail. Do we have someone who is a retail recruiter per se? No, we don’t. But we obviously have had some role in this,” Heath said.

But, he said, the EDC possibly could do more. He and others in the agency are “looking at this bigger picture to see if we can do better.”

Laura Bowles, director of MURA, said that agency’s efforts to attract retail “have not been (a) success. I know we have been in contact with some of the larger retailers and just have not gotten a positive response.”

The agency has refocused, and its emphasis now “is on trying to foster entrepreneurship” to try to “get local people to start their own businesses,” she said. A grant program to encourage entrepreneurship is being developed, but additional information on it is not yet available, she added.

Bowles supports any effort to expand retail.

“I think having a greater emphasis in this community on bringing in retail business is an appropriate effort” and “absolutely will complement” other efforts, she said.

Bowles noted that other areas have a variety of different agencies “trying to accomplish the same thing by taking a slight different” tact, and hoping that something will work.

Tim Martin, whose family owns Martin Plaza and other buildings in uptown Martinsville, said he also supports the effort and the potential for government’s involvement in recruiting retail businesses.

“Any help is appreciated,” he said.

Also, work is continuing on a redevelopment plan for Liberty Fair Mall in Martinsville, according to Coles Hull, a marketing analyst for Hull Storey Gibson Companies LLC, which bought the 434,000-square-foot mall on Commonwealth Boulevard last May.

Hull Storey Gibson also is trying to recruit new stores to the mall, according to previous reports. He said recently that “retailers have shown interest,” but none have committed yet.


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