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In the Know: Dynamics of retail development

Events such as the annual "Party in the Street" keep downtown Alexandria vibrant. (File photo)

One of the most frequently asked questions we receive at the AAEDC office is, "When will Kohl's, TJ Maxx, and Hobby Lobby build in Alexandria?" Outside of restaurant requests, these three retailers are the most highly requested. We are fortunate that our area has diverse sectors that contribute to our economic health, including retail. And a thriving retail sector offers multiple economic benefits to our community: greater sales tax revenue, additional jobs, an improved quality of life, and a more robust business development program.

While I firmly believe the market and regional draw is strong enough to support the addition of these large retailers, the reality is they may never build in the community. Although we may feel these businesses would be a good fit in our community, our demographics may not be what they need. Retailers do extensive research and analysis to make sure they've found a good location before deciding to build in a town or city. That data includes information from the age of our residents to the age of the city's infrastructure.

Outside of those demographics, technology and consumer buying habits have also altered the retail landscape. With everything a click away, consumers now demand more innovation, unique products and value than ever before. The growth in online shopping has confronted the retail sector with the need to reinvent the physical store space, changing the size, investment, and product delivery to meet the customer demands. Ian Geddes, partner at Deloitte, states, "In the new multi-channel reality, the boundaries between virtual and physical space are becoming blurred and retailers are being forced to question the role and function of stores in the environment where their relevance to the connected consumer is increasingly subject to challenge."

We've seen the market shift away from "super stores," toward smaller neighborhood stores.   Alexandria has already experienced this movement to smaller stores through both franchise retailers and locally owned stores. They are developing and building as close to the downtown core as possible because the downtown retail district is attracting the consumer through convenience, while also continuing to lure tourism dollars.

Another strong sector in our community is tourism. Tourism contributes profoundly to the area's economic strength and quality of life by supporting the retail shops, area restaurants, museums, festivals and lodging facilities. This includes significant support for Alexandria's downtown retail and entertainment district, which is enjoyed by local residents, but is also supported significantly by the visitors to this community.

While our downtown area has many shopping options, we have witnessed that it also has the opportunity to host a range of events — street dances, community parades and weekly live music. The AAEDC and other community organizations must continue to support activities that help our downtown stay vibrant and economically competitive.

As our community grows, I ask two questions of you: 1) What niche retail opportunities is our community currently missing that would help bolster our retail sector?  2) What unique events are we missing to continue to draw people to the downtown corridor? Share your ideas and feedback at aaedc@alexmn.org

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Nicole Fernholz is the director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.

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