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Red Brick Patrons walk past vacant Haney Shoes building Tuesday afternoon.

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. In Tuesday's Pilot-Tribune, we'll look at an updated hotel study Gateway Development recently completed.

Could Washington County residents see new clothing, food, sports, music and other retail options in the future?

A recent retail study completed through Gateway Development Corporation at least gives the organization monetary and shopper statistics to help expand local businesses and potentially recruit new businesses to the county.

"Just looking at Blair, for example, we have some decent retail chains,” Executive Director Mike Rooks said. “You have Walmart, you've good some good automotive places, you've got local businesses. But for as big as Blair is, and Washington County, it doesn't look like we have enough pieces of the pie."

A general overview

To help find the county’s retail needs, Gateway hired national consulting firm The Retail Coach to perform a study. The overall study noted when and where shoppers visited and spent money in and outside of Blair and Washington County at various times over a year. Gateway and The Retail Coach then analyzed which types of retail products Blair and the county could, does and doesn't sell.

The study also determined Blair’s retail trade area (RTA), which are places people come from in and outside of the county to shop. The county's RTA includes more than 30,000 people since it extends from Washington County to places like Woodbine, Iowa, and Craig, Neb.

"When you start trying to get people to bring business up here, they think of the biggest community — Blair. ‘That's only 8,000 people,’" Rooks said. "They say, 'We need 20,000, we need something more robust.' It came up that our retail trade area is about 32,000 people."

Jordan Rishel, executive director of the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce, said Blair can capitalize on the number of people in its RTA.

“We need to see what it is that they’re leaving the area for, so we can see what we can do to bring those in here,” she said.

A business strategy

Rooks said he's been in talks with a few businesses, but could not say if any specific business would come to the area.

Though there’s no guarantee any new businesses will come to the county, Rooks said the retail study allows for detailed talks with local, regional and chain retailers.

"I'm trying now to figure out the best strategy to go after some of the companies," he said. “We can go ahead and talk to brokers and say, ‘This is what we’re seeing right now. You might want to think about if you have an empty store front, going after these types of businesses.’”

A lot of real estate developers already have ins with various types of retail businesses, Rooks said, and Washington County’s demographics could be a recruiting tool for retailers. From a business perspective, the county’s median age of 42 and median yearly income of $62,000 means more parents and kids with money to spend.

“You’re not going to get a Forever 21 because you have a little bit older crowd, but that also means they’re willing to spend more money,” Rooks said. “And they have kids at that age.”

He said Gateway could also go to a current local business, like a clothing store, with retail study data and show that business there is a need for a certain type of clothing.

“We’re tying to make sure that we’re providing (county residents) what it is they’re looking for,” Rishel said. “Which is kind of hard to tell, but then you have stats like the study, it at least gives us an idea.”

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A patron walks into Carnes Collective on Tuesday morning.

Some growth areas

Clothing and sports retail opportunities are two of the biggest areas for growth that caught Rooks' attention.

According to the retail study, Blair’s RTA has the potential for nearly $16 million per year in clothing sales, but its actual sales are around $325,000. The difference is due in part to men's and children's clothing sales. According to the study, actual sales of men and children’s clothes are zero dollars. All actual sales are from women’s clothes.

The county has the potential for more than $4.5 million in sporting goods sales, but that area also has zero dollars in actual sales. In addition, the county could have more than $1.5 million in sales from products like sewing supplies, musical instruments and book stores, but the actual sales are again zero dollars.

"It's not like people from Washington County aren't buying these things, they just have to leave to get that," Rooks said.

Dollars head south

At least for some of these products, shoppers are going to downtown Omaha, Village Pointe and Scheels in Omaha.

One aspect of the study focused on five key congregational points in the county: Walmart, Memorial Community Hospital and Health System, Cargill, car dealerships and Fort Atkinson. The Retail Coach found where people came from and went to after visiting those areas. The three Omaha areas were a few of the top places people came and went.

Rishel said finding a way to keep those lost dollars in the county not only helps that specific retail area, but other businesses currently in the county since people in the RTA will stay in the county for longer periods of time to shop.

Rooks said keeping the dollars in county can boost sales tax dollars, which, depending on the government entity, could be used for roads, economic development or parks.

"That helps the entire community and Washington County grow," he said. "Maybe I can open some doors and say, 'Hey Mr. Retailer, look at our retail trade area, here is our needs, can you help us?'"

Where would a business be?

Retail help isn't just for Blair, Rooks said, but Arlington, Fort Calhoun, Herman or somewhere in between depending on where a business wanted to be located.

Downtown Blair or near Walmart could be good placement for a business. Downtown Blair has a couple of empty storefronts, which could support more local or regional businesses, Rooks said. Walmart also saw 65,000 individual shoppers over a year's time, according to the retail study.

“We could talk to a restaurant and say everyone, for example, is coming from 2 to 8 o'clock,” Rooks said. “So you want to make sure you're open during those times if you're around Walmart.”

Near Fort Atkinson, with before and after visitors accounting for five percent of Fort Calhoun’s restaurant sales, could also be good placement for retailers. Rooks said he’s also talked with people in Arlington about business opportunities. Blair’s car dealerships, with people coming from all around the Midwest the study found, further demonstrate there’s more than 8,000 people around the city.

“Our car dealerships do a phenomenal job,” Rooks said. “They’re tops in the region, if not tops in the nation. Something to pride ourselves on there.”

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Blair Maple patrons walk to vehicles along Washington Street Tuesday morning.

An interest in retail, growth

Rooks said he knows Washington County residents want more retail opportunities, such as chain restaurants, after talking with them over his eight months as Gateway’s executive director. With the retail study, he said he also has the data to show what the county needs.

“Economic development, it’s not just industry. It’s also retail, it’s also housing, it’s also trades,” Rooks said. “You have to have your fingers in everything in order to grow the community.”

People in Blair, Arlington and elsewhere in the county know the county needs to continue to grow, Rooks said. He said he’s seen good development in the county’s other economic impact areas, such as housing, but retail is the quality of life piece that can perpetuate economic development.

“If you don’t have the quality of life, you’re not going to get some of the major industries to look at you because their employees are still going to have to travel out further to find some of those necessities that they’re looking for,” Rooks said.

Gateway, he added, is also available to help anyone interested in opening a local business navigate the process and assist in a business plan.

“There’s a lot more draw into Washington County than people think,” Rooks said. “If you add one or two more businesses where (people) could spend, think about that.”

Blair's retail trade area potential, actual sales by general retail store description

Retail description: Potential sales (per year), Actual sales (per year)

Motor vehicles and parts dealers: $142.6 million, $422.2 million

Furniture and home furnishings stores: $12.6 million, $345,026

Electronics and appliance stores: $8.5 million, $1.2 million

Building material, garden equipment and supplies dealers: $62.7 million, $5.4 million

Food and beverage stores: $56.1 million, $22.5 million

Health and personal care stores: $27.3 million, $9.3 million

Gas stations: $85.3 million, $23.2 million

Clothing and clothing accessories: $15.8 million, $322,636

Sporting goods, music, book and hobby stores: $8.2 million, $0

General merchandise stores: $70.8 million, $57.8 million

Miscellaneous stores: $9.2 million, $2.5 million

Food services and drinking places: $52.3 million, $22.7 million

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