04/21/11 — City considers downtown recruiter

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City considers downtown recruiter

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on April 21, 2011 1:46 PM

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A Mulberry Street property sports a sign indicating it is available for rent. Officials are considering creating a business recruiter position that would help bring businesses to downtown.

The Downtown Goldsboro Development Corporation mission of bringing businesses downtown might take on a more deliberate approach if plans continue for a new business recruiter position that was discussed at the City Council's April 4 meeting.

The position has drawn criticism from the DGDC's board, and DGDC Executive Director Julie Thompson said she's unsure about her full endorsement of the position because of the lack of funds to sustain it.

Mayor Al King said the business recruiter position, which would allow a staff member of the DGDC to be devoted solely to bringing retail into downtown vacancies, was the brainchild of the DGDC board of directors, although Mrs. Thompson said formal discussion of the position came from the City Council retreat last month.

"There's always been discussion about bringing more business downtown," Mrs. Thompson said.

She said a member of the DGDC board mentioned during a meeting that he had a retired friend who was interested in recruiting downtown businesses on a volunteer basis. The interested volunteer came down with an illness, but the DGDC explored the concept further, and Mrs. Thompson mentioned it as part of her presentation at the City Council retreat.

Following her presentation, Councilman Chuck Allen asked her to research what it would take to fund a business recruiter position with her current budget. She presented her findings at the April council meeting, where she showed how she could reallocate $11,000 to fund the position in its first year, although she is cautious of where the new position could take the DGDC.

Mrs. Thompson said outside of taking her organization's emphasis off of downtown events, the board of directors is concerned that this move will signal a change in the DGDC's purpose.

"There's concern that we'll be fulfilling an expectation that we never said our office is responsible for. We've never stated that the purpose of our office is to fill properties," she said. "If you buy property downtown and you expect the DGDC office to fill it every time it becomes vacant, that's an unfulfilled expectation. That's not one of the things we've said we're going to do."

King, who said he supports anything that will help to develop Goldsboro's historic district, said the DGDC purpose would remain the same.

"Their mission is not shifting," he said, though he said economic development would be emphasized more. "It will be a part of what they do to complete their mission, which is to revitalize and make downtown a valuable place."

Mrs. Thompson said her board was split on the matter and that her presentation came solely from Mr. Allen's interest in the position.

"(The position is) more specifically growing out of the stated interest from the City Council," she said, adding that the limited funds for the position were what left the board unable to fully endorse the position creation.

"If we had additional resources to add to an effort, I think the board would be fine with that, but the indication is that they want us to figure out a way we can focus on that with our current resources, which means something will be impacted," she said.

Under the proposal she presented, that impact would mean cutting bits and pieces from different programs, including the business incentives grant and facade grant, and the elimination of community events, specifically the group's ice cream social and pet parade and the Wayne County Leaders parade.

"Commitment should be made to make it a long-term type of investment to give that person a chance to be successful and really show results," she said.

And while King said there were no plans to fund the position in the near future, Allen said he would like to see the council look for a way to at least partially help out with the capital for the position, specifically by using the remaining two months of the fiscal year to seek out items in the budget to reallocate toward the position.

But King sees the implementation of a business recruiter position as an experiment and seemed content with Mrs. Thompson's proposition for funding the position.

"We're not investing that much money in it. It's worth an effort. If it doesn't work, it's very easy to change that," he said. "Within six months we'll have a pretty good idea of what this is doing. We will know whether or not this thing is worth continuing or if we need to go in a different direction."

But Jessica Seretti said that might not be long enough. As the retail recruiter for the Downtown Carlisle Association in Carlisle, Pa, she said bringing businesses downtown proves to be a long-term process. Ms. Seretti's part-time position is funded partially by Dickinson College, a private liberal arts school in Carlisle that paid for the consultation work leading up to the job's creation, and the DCA. Carlisle was one of the municipalities Mrs. Thompson cited in her research for her proposal. Mrs. Thompson said no North Carolina cities with a similar population to Goldsboro have a downtown business recruiter, and no calls to larger cities in the state confirmed they had a similar position.

"It's a really long cycle. It can literally take at least a year from contact to opening up the store," Ms. Seretti said, adding that in her year-and-a-half in the position, she had closed on just three businesses, with two of those processes begun by her predecessor.

Allen concurred.

"It's hard for people to stay in business, much less open one or relocate downtown," he said, championing an assessment after one year, especially given the tough economic climate. "Six months is too short and once the mayor looks at it, I think he'll agree that's not going to give the program enough time."