They’re important for malls, shopping centers and downtown revitalization projects alike because without a reliable anchor, smaller storefronts will remain vacant and revenues will be unrealized.
For years, the names of recognizable regional retailers, like western North Carolina’s Mast General Store, have been whispered from Market to Main as possible magnets that could provide the boost needed to fill out downtown Johnson City’s darkened shops.
But Washington County Economic Development Council CEO Mitch Miller said the students from Northeast State Community College’s downtown site — expected to open in fall 2014 — tenants in Paxton Place and other residential developments and workers in commercial office buildings could produce the desired anchor effect.
“Downtown has been really successful with the restaurants, and that’s a key that’s going to propel us moving forward,” Miller said Thursday. “As far as having an anchor tenant, I think we’ve got it, I think we’ve got the making of some good things happening.
“Northeast State is going to be a huge anchor,” he continued. “It takes time, but once they’re in place and you have that foot traffic, you’ll get more attention from the retail side of things.”
Miller said a big-name retailer like Mast General Store would be a great addition to the landscape, but said the current focus is on securing corporate office tenants.
“Having folks down here working who are going to go to these shops, that are going to buy lunch, that’s the income you really want to have down here, and I think the corporate office climate is probably one of the more important ones,” he said. “Those are the people you need down here to get other businesses coming in.”
Shannon Castillo, the WCEDC’s redevelopment director, said another factor that will draw tenants is Johnson City’s willingness to invest in downtown.
“There are a lot of puzzle pieces that need to come into play and certainly one of those puzzle pieces is public infrastructure and public investment, and we’re getting that,” she said. “If you look at the changes to Buffalo Street and Founders Park and the streetscape investments the city’s making, then look right across the road where Tupelo Honey is making a huge investment at the depot. That’s showing that if the city shows a commitment to downtown then the private investment will follow.”
Miller agreed, but said it’s also the job of the economic developer to actively market the progress taking shape downtown to corporate tenants.
“It’s on us too to showcase those opportunities and get those folks to the table,” she said. “We’re working on some things, and I think there’s high likelihood that it could happen.”
WCEDC Director of Marketing and Community Relations Jeff Keeling said the student body of East Tennessee State University is a vast untapped resource for potential downtown customers, pointing to the success of Boone, N.C., Asheville, N.C., and other towns with schools near their cores.
“There are 15,000 people just down the road at ETSU,” he said. “Fortunately, the president of the university has been very committed to being a factor downtown, so that’s just another piece of the puzzle.”
“That’s one thing that really excites me,” Miller agreed. “Everything from bringing football back, with the Bucs branching out and going to Freedom Hall — (ETSU President) Dr. (Brian) Noland can dream big, he can make things happen. Downtown — he’s said it numerous times — is so important for the growth of ETSU. He’s going to be very instrumental in having us attain this development.”
The walkway along State of Franklin Road linking ETSU with the businesses downtown will soon be completed, but Miller said another potential pedestrian corridor is the less trafficked West Walnut Street.
“State of Franklin is always going to be meant for cars, but Walnut can be so much more,” he said. “It can be that avenue for pedestrian traffic that can be so vital to getting that link with ETSU.”
But Miller said those projects are likely far off in the future. For the time being, though, the pieces seem to be falling into place.
“It’s just time, effort, money, and a lot of that has to come into place,” he said. “With Tupelo opening up and Northeast State opening up, somebody’s going to see opportunity, I believe it.”