Economic study spells out ways Heflin might improve its downtown

·3 min read

May 15—HEFLIN — The city of Heflin has received the results of an economic study which should help it to match vacant retail space with businesses, thereby improving commercial conditions downtown.

During a Zoom presentation on Thursday morning, Ilana Pruess, CEO of Recast City, offered specific recommendations to community leaders, business owners and other stakeholders. Recast City is a consulting firm that works with real estate developers and city and civic leaders to integrate small-scale manufacturing into redevelopment projects and place-based economic development.

The three-month study was funded by Alabama Main Street, Heflin Main Street and the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission.

Pruess described small-scale manufacturing as any kind of tangible product that can be replicated or packaged, from woodworking, textiles and metal-working to goods made by artisans such as handbags, food items and crafts.

Pruess asked the question that many civic leaders and elected officials have on their minds as well: How to get the cash registers ringing up and down Ross Street.

"How do we help bring more energy to downtown with small-scale manufacturing businesses?" said Pruess.

That question has been answered, according to Pruess's report.

The study included interviews from property owners, business owners and residents, and through group discussions missing pieces were identified in the puzzle of how to cultivate more downtown commerce.

The results of the study had "very clear outcomes."

For example, Pruess said:

— People want to be able to walk around downtown Heflin, stop in for dinner, listen to music and linger in shops with friends and families.

— Historic buildings need to be cared for and filled with tenants to help create better paying jobs and young families need to be recruited to move downtown. (Pruess said occupancy of storefronts can increase property values, while vacant properties can depress other property values by up to 20 percent.)

Challenges that need to be addressed to Pruess include:

— Deferred maintenance on many existing buildings

— Lack of consistent retail store hours downtown

— Perceptions of downtown Heflin vs. neighboring towns

— Preparedness of new business owners

Pruess said there is limited business training and knowledge about existing incentives or programs to support small businesses.

Lastly, she said, U.S. 78 as it's situated downtown is too wide, and the traffic moves too fast.

"Until that physical environment is addressed the feeling for people to walk down the street probably isn't going to feel that safe," said Pruess.

"This needs to be an important goal, longer term," involving city and state cooperation to change, said Pruess, suggesting that a redesign of the highway to two lanes with a planted median would foster an environment that would be "more welcoming."

Noble Street in Anniston is one example of a street with planted medians.

Pruess offered several more recommendations to make a downtown Heflin a more vibrant city:

— Focus business development support

— Promote and brand the successes

— Incubate more ideas

— Adopt a vacant properties ordinance

— Launch a popup shop program in vacant storefronts

— Provide training for small business owners to become property owners

— Consider a matching grant program for retail improvements

— Consider a Heflin Main Street micro-loan program (USDA funding)

— Launch a family Friday event with vendors and live music

She said adding artisan vendors to the farmers market once a month and a "Made in Heflin" store would be beneficial as well.

Pruess celebrated the success of one business in Heflin, Vendors Mall which has a variety of local vendors and artisans.

Tammy Perry, Heflin's economic developer, said on Friday that the city is moving forward with some of the recommendations.

Perry said the city is going to work on creating a startup program for businesses that want to locate in Heflin, adding that Heflin Main Street has a lot of resources for new entrepreneurs.

Another thing that Perry said would be beneficial is a businessowner social dialogue so they can exchange information and educate one another on what other businesses offer.

"It will result in us being better prepared for the growth that we are already experiencing," said Perry.

Staff writer Bill Wilson: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @bwilson_star.

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