With the help of volunteer research, Claremore Main Street recently published a Business Recruitment, Expansion and Retention Plan to serve as a guide for the city, the chamber of commerce, Claremore Main Street and CIEDA.
The main findings and conclusions of the plan were summarized by volunteer researcher and former RSU Vice President Ray Brown, who holds a doctorate in economic development.
“Many of our businesses, as you know, are small businesses,” Brown said, setting up the context for business recruitment and retention downtown. “Data from the Small Business Administration shows that 50 percent of all small businesses fail within the first five years.”
The challenge, Brown said, is finding the kinds of businesses that will stay competitive and drawing them in.
And while turnover and vacant storefronts are a natural process when dealing with small businesses, the business of downtown Claremore have had remarkable staying power.
According to a survey of 25 current Main Street business and property owners, Almost 60 percent of downtown businesses have existed for more than five years. Only 4 percent have existed for less than a year.
When storefronts are vacant, Brown said, “Business owners need to be prepared at a moment’s notice to jump in and pursue that, because storefronts do not stay vacant very long.”
When it comes to downtown Claremore’s strengths, merchants and community members were largely in agreement.
Merchants overwhelmingly agreed that the number and diversity of shops and dining was downtown’s greatest strength followed by the historic buildings, fun events and sense of community.
A survey of 450 community members revealed the same thing, with shops, small town charm, events, variety and walkability.
When it comes to opportunities for improvements, parking was the number one issue highlighted by merchants.
Parking was the third most significant issue for community members as well.
“A lot of that is perception,” Brown said. “No one likes to walk any further than they have to.”
“We found that most hours of the day there are parking spaces available if you are willing to walk a block or two,” Brown said. “We would like to make it more convenient if we can, but that is not the highest priority on our list.”
Merchants and the community were also in agreement that downtown need more in the way of dining variety, including evening dining and adult pubs.
Merchants said they would like to improve the diversity of businesses and have fewer resale shops downtown, and provided information on the types of downtown businesses that would be complementary.
A kitchen or houseware store was identified as most complementary followed by a dining establishment with a bar. Other complementary businesses included kid-friendly stores and art or galleries.
As a result of the merchant and community responses, researchers compiled a list of target businesses to serve as the focus of recruitment efforts.
That list includes diversified retail, pubs and bars, an ice cream shop, a coffee shop that opens earlier, a kids’ store, a music store, an art store or gallery, kitchen wares, home décor and family clothing.
“While everyone is pleased with number and diversity of retail stores that we had and thought it was a strength of downtown Claremore, they want to see even more,” Brown said.
In addition to businesses, people in the community are looking for more experiences.
“Downtown experiences seem to be just as important as shopping and dining,” Brown said.
People also want downtown to stay open later.
Some of downtown’s larger issues, like vacant second floors and nearly condemned buildings, will require more effort and investment.
The city is also looking for places downtown to install public restrooms.
“Planners and stakeholders for the downtown district should investigate and recommend opportunities to foster change through different strategies, such as tax incremental districts, finance districts, opportunity zones, historical tax credits and other strategies that will attract investors and developers,” Brown said.
Claremore City Councilor Scott Savage said, “Government dollars have got to come into this investment downtown. The city is always looking to see where we can help.”
“The Business Recruitment, Expansion and Retention Plan is really just the first step of downtown development. It is a good framework for our future efforts,” Brown said. “We need to collaborate to accomplish all of this. We are looking to partner with the city, the chamber, downtown merchants and business owners, Claremore Collective, RSU, NTC and whoever we can.”