Would it make sense if people in distressed neighborhoods could play a role in encouraging local commerce? And would businesses eyeing expansion like it if they could find out more about unmet demand for their products or services?
Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson has created an innovative retail-focused economic development program which offers a resounding "Yes!" to those two questions. Corridors of Opportunity in Louisville (COOL) has succeeded in attracting to the city at least 400 businesses since 2003. It's quickly become a national model, with dozens of cities approaching Louisville in recent years to learn about how it works.
"We began to think of economic development in a different way," says Abramson.
While running to be Louisville's first metro mayor in 2002 -- he had previously been the city's mayor before the city and county consolidated -- Abramson repeatedly heard from constituents that there weren't enough services in their neighborhoods. Residents wanted additional retail opportunities including grocery stores, restaurants, laundromats and car repair shops.
Abramson also noted the many vacant commercial structures along key arteries that run from downtown Louisville through residential neighborhoods and into its suburbs. "Along those radials, we had an awful lot of strip shopping centers that literally were empty and were looking for tenants," he says.
So, after Abramson was elected, he established COOL, a new program within Louisville Metro's Economic Development Department.
Here's how it works: Officials informally and formally survey residents to find out what businesses they want to see nearby. They also use market studies to determine which retail needs aren't being met. One example is research they commissioned from Social Compact, a nonprofit organization which documents the economic potential of underserved neighborhoods. The study concluded that nearly 45,000 more residents than census data suggests -- lots of potential customers -- live in moderate- and low-income Louisville neighborhoods.
Officials also have analyzed sales data to document "retail gaps" not being addressed in those neighborhoods.
City officials take that data and approach businesses, urging them to open shops in locations where they are clearly needed. Most of that is done by meeting with existing owners at various social and professional events and forums, and encouraging them to expand. And they show them right where their goods and services are needed.
"We take local businesses out to one of those strip shopping centers where they could get very inexpensive rents so that we were narrowing their risk, minimizing their risk," says Abramson.
Of the 400 businesses COOL has helped since 2003, roughly half have been local businesses and the other half national chains, including everything from small shops to big-box retailers.
Officials don't just encourage businesses to expand: They also offer a series of incentives. Those include assistance in finding a site and acquiring financing. Louisville Metro offers several loan programs, including micro loans ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 for start up businesses and small business loans of up to $100,000.
COOL also helps businesses and developers obtain regulatory approvals, to meet planning and design requirements. The city has also made efforts to spruce up dilapidated commercial corridors, by making changes such as replacing sidewalks, planting trees, improving parking and boosting lighting.
Once the business opens, COOL's work isn't done. "We energize the neighborhoods on either side of the corridor, saying, 'You said that you would support a cleaner,'" Abramson says. "'We're now opening a cleaners at this specific location. You need to be their customers.'" At the same time, these businesses also need workers, so they also help create jobs for local residents.
"It's worked exceptionally well," Abramson concluded. "It's given us an opportunity not only to fill the strip shopping centers, but to bring the kind of neighborhood economic development that enhances the quality of life for citizens."