Gearing up for its goal-setting retreat on Friday, the Laramie City Council was presented with an update during its work session Tuesday on the city’s work with The Retail Coach to study retail leakage within the city and potential ideas for encouraging more growth.
While many of the potential hindrances to Laramie’s retail growth could be out of the city’s control, City Council members voiced concerns as to whether the city’s Unified Development Code needed to be modified to help development and brainstormed ways to fund revitalizing the “blighted” buildings around town to make them more appealing to developers.
Sarah Reese, economic diversification and community initiatives administrator, presented the Council with an update on Laramie’s retail strengths and weaknesses. She said the Retail Coach has been analyzing Laramie’s market, determining missed retail opportunities and reaching out to retailers for one-on-one meetings with the city.
Reese said the city had 10 meetings last year with potential retailers, with almost seven meetings already planned for 2019. Despite these meetings, Reese said one of the city’s main goals is to help current businesses sell more product and not “sell local retailers down the river.”
“I think we can all agree that authenticity of place — that we are unlike any other community – is a huge strength in Laramie,” Reese said.
However even with the character small businesses bring, Reese said Laramie has some gaps the mom and pop businesses can’t fill.
“For all of the amazing shopping opportunities that we have ranging from skis to bikes to jewelry to rare books, we struggle to purchase basic goods in Laramie,” Reese said.
According to The Retail Coach’s data so far, Laramie is hemorrhaging retail opportunities in a few key areas, including motor vehicles and parts and electronics and appliances, with an overall gap of around $115 million dollars in retail opportunities lost. Reese added as a disclaimer the data is not perfect, with some skewed statistics for grocery stores and men’s clothing.
Part of the city’s retail woes come from variables out of anyone’s control, like the national market or technology changes, Reese said. However, she added Laramie does have issues with lack of available space.
“The kinds of retailers we want to attract, they want to either be in the Kmart building or the Staples building,” Reese said. “Once those are filled, we don’t have a lot to market locally.”
Both councilman Brian Harrington and councilman Paul Weaver shared concerns about potential issues the developers or retailers might have with the city’s Unified Development Code. While Weaver said he hasn’t heard of any developers or residents expressing major concerns with the code, he thought the city could be more “proactive.”
“I’m not trying to characterize the city’s code around these issues as necessarily overly burdensome,” Weaver said. “What I’ve always wondered is if there are things there that we thought as a city government we might be able to remove or make more attractive by way of incentivizing redevelopment.”
Reese said the city works with the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance to get a gauge on developer and business-owner opinions on city code, and the Planning Department also brings issues it sees to the city. Planning Manager Derek Teini also pointed out the City Council changes and updates the code multiple times a year, unlike most other cities that have also adopted it.
One solution Reese said the coach suggested is to revitalize abandoned or run-down buildings. Harrington asked if the city could model doing so after Casper, using grant money to help fix up run-down buildings around town to make them more attractive for development.
Reese said she’d have to investigate their funding model, but suspected Casper was using federal grant funds not available to Laramie due to the city’s size. Many of the council members expressed interest in looking for alternative funding methods to help revitalize some of the “blighted” buildings.
The Laramie City Council is participating in a retreat on Friday and Saturday to plan out goals for the upcoming year, including the possibility of goals relating to retail leakage and business development.