Energized: Economic development officials encouraged by business prospects

Friday, October 6, 2017

McCOOK, Neb. — A local economic development contingent came back from an out-of-state meeting last week armed with a wealth of data on area shoppers, a lengthy list of business enterprises looking for a community like McCook, and a renewed enthusiasm for the local retail scene.

“It was awesome,” McCook Economic Development Director Andrew Ambriz said with an obvious air of excitement during a sit-down chat with the Gazette recently. Ambriz and three others, MEDC Board Member Lena Koebel, Ben Dutton with the Nebraska Extension office and Chamber of Commerce Board Member Trevor Taylor, made the trek to Alabama last week as a part of a $10,000 Retail Academy program through Retail Strategies LLC of Birmingham.

The group returned with more than 400 pages of specific data on McCook shoppers provided by the retail recruitment firm, stemming from mobile phone data tracked at Walmart. The reports ultimately indicated McCook’s retail trade area population is just shy of 30,000 with a median household income of $50,000 and also provides access to shopper specifics, such as what type of music visitors most likely listen to.

“They tracked cellphone data to determine where shoppers were coming from and how they were getting to Walmart,” explained Ambriz. He indicated the data is vital to prospective business leaders who often focus heavily on a specific population radius and certain household income requirements.

The group expected to return with more than 100 pages of demographic information and a list of 15 different retailers that were looking for a market like McCook. They were more than satisfied with the end result, according to Ambriz.

“We walked away with 34 retail prospects, a huge over-deliver,” he said.

Among the 34 prospects is a handful of clothing stores, which Ambriz indicated should be welcome news to area residents disappointed with the recent JCPenney’s departure.

Another listed prospect, Ace Hardware, helped bolster confidence in the data. The day Ambriz met with Retail Academy officials in Alabama it was announced back home in the Gazette an Ace Hardware franchisee had purchased the former JCPenney’s building and was opening an outlet.

“I asked them how they knew,” Ambriz said with chuckle, adding that when he saw Ace among the prospects it served as further validation the list was accurate.

As exciting as the results were, Ambriz indicated the work was just beginning for area economic development officials who will now focus on finding property to meet the individual needs of prospects, those that fit McCook’s retail landscape anyways.

The retail space sought varies by prospect but Amrbiz indicated most are looking for between 1500 and 5500 square feet. “We’re looking hard at available property,” he said.

Ambriz plans to compile an inventory over the next three months of available buildings and property, coupled with identifying owners and gauging their willingness or desire to be involved. He said it would require some creativity and included prioritizing prospective business that fit McCook.

“We want to find retail that fits our existing profile, fill a need,” he said.

Other communities have found success with Retail Academy prospects in as little as six months but often times it is a process that can take several years, according to Ambriz. He said Liberal, Kan., started on a similar path in 2014 and two weeks ago welcomed one of their retail prospects.

Access to the Retail Academy data and accompanying software significantly expedites MEDC’s role as a business resource, which benefits existing retailers as well as new recruits. Ambriz said it has already trimmed what was previously a two hour process to compile specific data, down to 20 minutes, in addition to increasing accuracy.

“Retail Academy is well worth it. It has pointed us in a direction where we’re more conscientious of how retail recruitment is going to impact our economy. We can use this information not only for recruitment, but it will also lend itself to build business for local entrepreneurs,” said Ambriz. One example he cited was the ability for the data to tell what type of shoppers visit McCook, offering specifics such as the type of music they are most likely to listen to.

“It’s much more accurate than our previous data, as well,” he said.

The Retail Academy data also indicates McCook is losing a lot of local shoppers to other areas, which Ambriz intends to include among his priorities going forward. He said it was a matter of helping rural entrepreneurs be competitive.

“In the end, the pure fact that we have $100 million in retail purchases leaving this community is an unbelievable number. We want to figure out how to recoup that leakage and address the needs of local business, keep those dollars here,” he said.

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