By Jean Cole
The keys to luring the stores that Limestone County shoppers covet is not better schools, more amenities or even lower taxes, but concentration.
What Athens lacks in areas such as U.S. 72 and Exit 351 of Interstate 65 is more rooftops concentrated in those areas, according to City Planner Mac Martin.
Martin and Allison Crawford of the Planning Department presented information to the City Council this week on attracting retail development.
“We don’t need to grow the city so much as we need to grow the population,” Martin said. “Population density is a glaring issue for us. Retail developers and establishments are looking for two things when making a choice on the type of site they are going to develop. They are looking for a population within a certain drive time as well as traffic counts. If we can boost the number of rooftops within a 10-minute drive of Exit 351 on Interstate 65, then it becomes more attractive to potential retailers. Right now, our density is not sufficient for some retailers we have met with.”
He specifically named T.J. Max, which does have a location off Beltline Road in Decatur, a heavily traveled artery with dense population nearby.
While Athens has about 547 people per square mile, Martin said, population density is higher in cities that made the CNN-Money Magazine list of the best small towns in America. You can see the list online at http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/best-places/2012/top100/.
Those top 100 cities, Martin said, have population densities ranging from 862 people per square mile in Bixby, Okla., to 2,000 people per square mile in larger cities.
Many of these cities have a smaller land area than the city of Athens, but they have a lot of recreational facilities, lots of retail options (both in the form of large malls and neighborhood shops) and a high quality of life,” Martin said.
Limestone County retailers are not tapping the full potential of its residents.
Martin said the population inside the county — about 82,000 — has a buying power of $934 million per year but it is spending less than $789 million a year inside the county.
That means some sales are going elsewhere — to Madison and Morgan counties and to Internet sales. The goal of planners and retailers is to recoup some of that spending, which is referred to as “leakage.”
“Eighteen percent of our sales in the retail sector are going elsewhere, whether it is Madison or Morgan counties or the Internet,” Martin said.
Some residents and retailers say the council’s recent decision to raise the city sales tax by 1 percent will only worsen that problem.
However, Martin disagrees.
“The tax issue is not that big,” Martin said. “As the mayor says, we are pretty competitive with other cities and counties.”
Some leakage is attributed to the high concentration of residents in the eastern portion of the county who may find it easier to stop at the Publix on County Line Road or at a store on U.S. 72 in Madison before they go home.
“I don’t now how you deal with that leakage,” he said. “This is a major concern for us.”
Martin said one way to reduce leakage is to lure the retail stores that will draw shoppers on the weekends. In essence, keeping shoppers from heading outside the county.
Martin also suggested that the city work with the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce to continually educate residents on where their tax dollars go. Many Chamber members, however, were not appreciative of the swiftness with which the council approved a sales tax hike. Communication could be improved.