Bringing Up Business 

"When people think about retail, they typically think of clothing, and clothing only," says Katrina Shelton.

But clothes are the most important part of shopping, right?

"And shoes and accessories," Shelton adds. "It's important to accessorize." Shelton should know. The fashion designer returned to the Bluff City a few years ago to open women's clothing and jewelry haven Tonic on South Main. And though Tonic isn't open any more, Shelton is still selling downtown -- as the Center City Commission's new retail recruitment manager.

"We're going after several businesses, but we're looking primarily at retail, because that's the only way to create more street-level traffic," Shelton says.

Shelton was hired in January, perhaps signaling the CCC's renewed focus on bringing new businesses downtown.

"Obviously, we've been hearing for some time that downtown retail needs to grow," says Nicole Hernandez, the CCC's director of executive programs. "We think the timing is right now. More people are moving downtown, and the demographics are there. We've always had someone here focusing on it, but we thought it was a great time to bring someone on full-time."

The CCC is currently updating its five-year strategic planning survey for downtown, with input from one general online questionnaire and another for business executives.

"[Business development] is in our plan now, but I think that will probably become a bigger part," says Hernandez.

Goals for the 2002-2006 plan included a thriving downtown, a self-sustaining Main Street Mall, and improved transportation, among other things. Hernandez says the new study will look at whether those goals are still relevant and if anything is missing within the plan.

Under the section regarding a thriving downtown, the current plan reads, "Occupancy rates must increase after hovering in the 70-80 percent range for more than 10 years, new businesses must be recruited to downtown, existing businesses must be retained and encouraged to grow, and an increase in sales tax revenue within downtown must be realized. All of this can be accomplished through a concentrated and targeted effort to re-tenant vacant spaces to create a critical mass."

The plan also reported that 51 percent of respondents hoped to see a department store, grocery store, and specialty store added to downtown. I might be out on a limb, but that still seems relevant to me.

From initial reports, Hernandez says it seems everyone agrees. "A lot of progress has been made, but a lot of work needs to be done," says Hernandez. "Even with the $3 billion worth of projects either under construction or in the planning phase right now, a lot remains."

The updated plan is expected in June, and the CCC wants input from everyone.

"When you think of big cities, you think of their downtowns," says Hernandez. "Even if you live in Germantown or Bartlett, if you want to showcase Memphis for people, you bring them downtown. If a corporation is looking to move to Memphis, they look at whether downtown is thriving, even if they're locating in East Memphis. ... Everyone has a vested interest in downtown being successful."

The CCC has also held about 20 meetings with key groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the city and county government administration, the medical district advisory board, and yes, area retailers.

"It's going to be in tiers," says Shelton of downtown development. "The larger companies -- there's no emotion in it for them. They're looking just at the bottom line, and the numbers are not there yet, but they're coming. [National retailers are] more wish list."

The CCC has created a retail incentive fund to assist new retailers in obtaining short-term capital. Other than that, Shelton says she doesn't have a sales pitch.

"It's really talking about all the development and growth downtown and that now is the time to get in," she says. "It sells itself, quite honestly, to those who are interested and willing to take a risk."

Currently, she's looking at areas and locations that have had success and seeing if there are ways to build upon that.

"We're looking at possible clustering," she says, "where we pair available space with business. We're looking at South Main, for instance. It's the arts district. We're looking for things that will fit into the energy that's already there."

Which sounds to me like Shelton may not be working with clothes anymore, but she's definitely still accessorizing.

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