Market analysis helping Galax plan future of downtown

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A retail market analysis for Galax’s downtown area will help identify the historic shopping district’s strengths and set a course for its future as the city looks at potential improvements.
The analysis was requested by Galax City Council, and the Galax Downtown Association also asked to hear the findings. RKG Associates, which conducted the study, presented its report to council at its April 8 meeting.
This presentation was a follow-up on the preliminary analysis conducted by RKG Associates on Dec. 7, 2012.
Through this study, the city and downtown merchants hope to get a better idea of what is (or isn’t) working well for the community.
The study covered more 555,000 square feet, and 124 active businesses. According to RKG’s findings, the downtown area already has a strong base for business.
Preliminary research determined that the vacancy rate for the downtown area was approximately 10.8 percent, with 19 storefronts and buildings present at the time of their research, according to Russell Archambault, who presented the findings to  council last week.
A general observation was that the building vacancies were overshadowed by underutilization. Many businesses were found operating only part-time, which decreases availability for potential customers, according to the report.
Properties with absentee landlords and properties that were poorly maintained were also noted during their observations.
The analysis determined the specific types of business owners in the community. “Some are serious business people, some always wanted to own a business... there are all sorts. Property owners are sometimes out of town and not as engaged,” Archambault said.
Overall, research determined that the basic structure, or “bones,” of downtown are generally in good shape. Archambault noted that the area has several strengths, such as small town culture and values, bluegrass and old-time musical history, outdoor recreational opportunities, a growing arts program, tourism development efforts and a regional retail and healthcare hub.
However, several issues were also heard from the community, such as lack of diversity for businesses and events, lack of consistent business hours and concerns about attracting businesses and customers to the area.
Research showed that a business anchor was needed, along with an increase in daily foot traffic.
RKG Associates heard during its research that there is a demand for several business opportunities that don’t exist now. Those included a general store, a sporting/recreational store, quality clothing stores, a hostel for travelers and anchor stores to attract shoppers to the area.
Several areas were focused on for their redevelopment and attraction possibilities, including the former Wachovia and Charter bank sites on North Main, A Place in Time Antiques at the corner of Main and Grayson streets, as well as gateway properties — areas the travelers arriving in Galax see first.
Several opportunities for reconstruction and business projects were discussed to fill these areas, according to the report. Ideas included a general store, a microbrewery (a suggestion in December that has since been fulfilled by the opening of Creek Bottom Brews), a recreation-oriented retail outfitter and spaces for artists to live and work.
Tourist benefits were also discussed, with ideas like guided tours, outdoor dining, a fall food or cultural festival, night-time music venues and more.
“People from North Carolina see this as a second home market, and some people are living here in retirement. This brings in a lot of different backgrounds,” Archambault said, noting that catering to the growing diversity in the area is also a good idea for businesses.
Another focus agreed upon by the council, the downtown association and RKG was to create more opportunities for the younger residents of Galax. “We want to strive for a vibrant, younger population that stays in the area, and providing an exciting community is the first step,” Archambault said.
RKG reported that tourism development efforts are showing results. However, there is a heavy reliance on volunteer work, which is not always reliable due to volunteers burning out.
Another issue encountered was the need for a reliable annual funding source, such as member dues, special tax assessments, grants writing, etc.
“We have an issue of how many events should we organize and administer each year, and is that too much,” Archambault told council. "A lot of people have said that they are burned out, and that there is only so much they can do as volunteers.”
The solution, he said, was to take a closer look at these events, and determine how they relate to strengthening downtown.
Another solution presented by Archambault was to pair the Visitor Center and the Galax Downtown Association. Volunteers pulled from this hub, he said, would help to take the burden of responsibility from downtown merchants, putting festival and other event planning in the hands of professionals.
Re-energizing the community is a key factor in determining success in the future, Archambault told the council. “We need staff support to help with what can’t be done through volunteer efforts. This will require leadership on your part and the city manager’s part to get these things going,” he said.
Following the presentation, Mayor C.M. Mitchell thanked Archambault for RKG Associates’ hard work. “We will take your pages and digest the ideas. It will be a useful tool as we move forward,” he said.