Mayor discusses challenges of retail recruitment

By JENNIFER COHRON, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 4/27/17

CORDOVA — Two and a half years have passed since the return of Piggly Wiggly — the last retail grand opening in downtown Cordova.

Around town, theories abound about why no one has built on the empty Main Street.

Are strict building codes …

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Mayor discusses challenges of retail recruitment


CORDOVA — Two and a half years have passed since the return of Piggly Wiggly — the last retail grand opening in downtown Cordova.

Around town, theories abound about why no one has built on the empty Main Street.

Are strict building codes driving up the cost of construction?

Have city leaders become distracted by revamping the old Indian Head Mill site as a recreational park?

What affect did the loss of the city’s only bank last year have on business recruitment?

Mayor Drew Gilbert, who exuded youthful optimism when he was elected in 2012, recently said the economic stall has been his biggest struggle and toughest teacher.

“Coming into office, I was pretty cocky. I thought, ‘Small towns are in again. Let’s start a little boom on Main Street,’” Gilbert said.

Six months into his second term, Gilbert is ready to concede that the city’s population — roughly 2,000 according to the 2010 Census — and 30 percent poverty rate don’t paint an attractive picture for those interested in making a profit.

It doesn’t help, he added, that residents have not flocked to Piggly Wiggly as city leaders and the store’s owners had hoped.

“When we go to recruit business, the X factor for us is the grocery store. It’s the economic engine. People ask how it’s performing, and I have to tell them it’s a fraction of what it was before the tornado. We’re three years out from its opening. That’s a red flag for a developer,” Gilbert said.

The city built the grocery store with a $1.4 million federal disaster recovery grant. However, Gilbert is adamant that any future business development will require private investment.

“You don’t build private businesses with public dollars. Cities don’t build the general store or the pharmacy. That doesn’t happen,” he said.

In spite of the inactivity on Main Street, the city has expanded its pre-tornado tax base.

Taxable receipts for 2016 were $7,075,282, compared to $6,814,752 in 2010, according to data released by the city. Between 2010 and 2016, sales tax revenue increased from $136,298 to $212,258, thanks in part to a 1-cent sales tax increase approved in 2014.

Gilbert is quick to point out that the city’s downtown was in decline for decades, and several of the businesses that populated it the day of the tornadoes have reopened elsewhere.

“It’s a long journey ahead. We’re at a disadvantage because we don’t have real estate to rehabilitate. Maybe we can get two or three shops and clean up the rest of Main Street. I’ve come to the realization in the past year that could very well be the finished product because we didn’t have a thriving downtown on April 27,” he said.

None of the individuals who own property on Main Street have expressed an interest in rebuilding, according to Gilbert, who dismissed the suggestion that building codes are the reason for the lack of investment.

“If you are genuinely interested in investing in our downtown, come see us and we’ll make it work for you. Not only will we most likely donate you the land to build on, we will work with you through our Planning Commission to make sure it is an affordable endeavor,” Gilbert said.

The city, which owns approximately 60 percent of the lots on Main Street, has yet to pursue construction of a speculative building that could be rented by residents who have expressed an interest in opening mom-and-pop businesses.

The city does have an Economic and Industrial Development Authority.

However, the only funding it receives is rent from Piggly Wiggly, which is used for upkeep of the building, according to CEIDA chairman Mike Gilbert.

“If the board had the money to build things, we would and see what happened from there, but unless there is some kind of grant out there to help the industrial board or to help the city do that, I don’t know of any funding for it except the private sector,” he said.

The city council, meanwhile, is committed to quality of life improvements, such as creating a park on the mill site and supporting the Walker County Health Action Partnership’s efforts to improve three boating access points in the city.

Unlike economic development, these projects can be completed with grant funding and represent an area where Gilbert believes his administration can have the most impact over the next four years.

“We’ve trained ourselves to leave for retail. No matter what we put on Main Street, we’re still going to rely on our neighbors. What we can do in our day-to-day efforts is make it a good place to live and improve our recreation for all ages,” Gilbert said.

On the economic front, the next step for the city could be a “buy local” campaign to educate residents about the short-term and long-term effects of supporting current businesses.

“I’m not saying don’t shop in Jasper. I shop in Jasper, but if you can get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk in Cordova, why would you buy it somewhere else?” Gilbert said.