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Johnson City to weigh $105K contract with retail 'matchmakers'

David Floyd • Oct 16, 2019 at 10:30 PM

Johnson City is in the market for new business, and officials hope a self-proclaimed retail “matchmaker” can help it spark some interest.

During its regular meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at 601 E. Main St., the city commission will consider a three-year, $105,000 contract with Retail Strategies, a consulting and data-management firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, that helps cities attract new businesses to their markets.

The money would be paid out in three yearly $35,000 installments. The item is included on the commission’s consent agenda.

“Retail Strategies specializes in data mining and relationship building to act as a conduit between potential regional and national retailers and the development community,” staff wrote in a summary of the agenda item. “In addition, they represent the city as a client community at multiple regional and national recruitment events.”

Preston Mitchell, the city’s development services director, said the firm has gathered a large quantity of data on the Johnson City market.

“It appears to me that their biggest asset is data,” Mitchell said.

He said the firm can bring this information — which it draws from sources like cellphones and census information — to national retailers to see if the economic conditions of the city match up with the needs of certain businesses.

“It’s kind of like panning for gold,” Mitchell said.

When the firm finds a retailer that is in active growth mode and prepared to expand, Mitchell said Retail Strategies can connect them to developers in the area. 

“Once they set up that blind date, so to speak, it’s up to the developer and the retailer to make the decision whether or not they’re going to continue dating,” Mitchell said.

The city has been one of the firm’s clients for a few years now. Their previous contract with Retail Strategies ran from January 2016 to January 2019, and the city has since worked with them on a six-month contract.

The firm delivered a pitch to commissioners during a meeting in September, giving them an overview of the work they’ve done for Johnson City. Representatives from the firm said Retail Strategies has been involved in bringing several significant retailers and restaurants to the area, including At Home, Guitar Center and Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.

Other business

Commissioners will also hear on Thursday a presentation about short-term rentals in Johnson City, which could be a precursor to changes in city rules that govern the properties.

City staff will discuss the status of short-term rentals in Johnson City, how the city administers its local lodging tax, and the types potential land use regulations that could be addressed by an ordinance.

Short-term rentals are any properties, excluding traditional hotels or motels, that are rented as overnight lodging for fewer than 30 days. Property owners typically make the lodgings available through online brokers like Airbnb, HomeAway and FlipKey.

Mitchell said the city wants to ensure that short-term rentals meet appropriate land use requirements, making certain that they end up in compatible locations where they wouldn’t be disruptive to nearby residents. Unregistered residential short-term rentals are also not paying occupancy taxes, Mitchell said, which would typically be charged at a motel, hotel or bed and breakfast.

“That’s important because that’s an equity issue,” Mitchell said.

In addition to the update on short-term rentals, commissioners will consider on first reading a new animal control ordinance that would change registration requirements for dogs, phase out tethering and make it easier for the Washington County/Johnson City Animal Shelter to spay or neuter animals that end up in its care.

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