Questioning the Salisbury City Council candidates – part 3

If you’re new to the series, here are part 1 and part 2.

We pick up here with questions on development of jobs and of downtown Salisbury.

There’s no question that a standard answer for making a community more business-friendly is to eliminate red tape – we all know that. But a better question is what sort of incentives can we bring to the table to attract businesses and what sort of businesses do you feel would be the best fit for the city given its location and workforce?

Boda: First, it begins with attitude and how we approach the situation.  Approaching the business community and asking “What can we do to help?”. Retaining business is priority one in my opinion.

Creating a clear, concise formula when presenting extraction or impact fees for new businesses will provide a clear understanding of what is expected.  Instead of demanding it all up front, create a flexible payment plan that offers options on how and when fees need to be paid.

Identify where we want growth, create a plan with developers and members of our business community, and execute it.  The execution of our plans are key, because we have had many studies and plans over the years with very little execution.

Ford: First, we must create a community vision plan.  My “Together We Can Build a City” initiative aims to bring together stakeholders from across the city in a professionally, independently facilitated forum to identify a common direction for the city.  As an example, I have heard a lot of discussion about the untapped potential of the waterfront, but over the last 20 years, disorganized, piecemeal development of properties on the water has created stagnation for the city and those that have invested in those properties. 

A community vision could serve as an encouraging roadmap for businesses around which to create their business plans.  If a business owner knows, for example, that the city is going to concentrate its efforts in the waterfront area, he or she will have incentive to fall in line with the collective progress and develop a business that fits in with the others around it. 

Individual businesses will not and have not succeeded in the downtown area.  It will take a joint effort of multiple forces to create the synergy needed to develop and revitalize the center city area. 

As far as businesses throughout the rest of Salisbury, we must create a level playing field between county and city tax rates.  The City of Salisbury is a checkerboard territory with pockets of county property scattered throughout its boundaries.  Literally, neighboring businesses pay significantly different taxes.  This is counterproductive, discourages businesses from locating within city limits and deserves discussion.

Salisbury’s unemployment rate is actually lower than the national average right now, but our economic challenges are a product of national and international forces. As such, our job is to prepare for the larger economic recovery and capitalize on its arrival.

As far as what types of businesses are best for the city, I believe fundamentally that a healthy economy requires diversity.  We have learned the hard way what it means to rely on one or two keystone businesses.  When those businesses leave or close, the whole community stagnates.  I would like to see Salisbury seek a combination of large businesses that employ many people and smaller businesses that can respond quickly to change.

I would like to see Salisbury capitalize on the bookends of the community, namely Salisbury University and Peninsula Regional Medical Center, to create a regional economic hub centered around medical and technological industries, including green technologies.  I would like to see manufacturers relocate to Salisbury.  While high tech and green jobs do not directly address the blue collar workforce of Salisbury, those industries do support the related service industries that support them…hotels, retail, hospitality and service jobs. 

Mitchell: It is good practice to eliminate unnecessary barriers to attracting and securing new businesses in Salisbury, as you said. The City now has an Information Technology department that is working to restructure the City’s official website and move it to a new server. These steps should make the site more operational, and with the input of the business community I believe we can make it more user friendly. I would like to see a site where prospective businesses could find access to most everything they need to establish a business in Salisbury, from licensing requirements and applications to scheduling inspections to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. The State of Maryland is also taking steps to improve access by restructuring the State website to allow more business startup transactions to be completed online.

As for the incentives, I like the program that Cambridge MainStreet conducted last fall. To attract new businesses to downtown, they held a contest to award the winners 2-3 months of rent free storefront downtown to allow them time to make a profit during the holidays. The hope is that those businesses will now have enough cash to operate through the leaner months until shopping (traditionally) rebounds in the spring. I will also refer back to the TIF, Enterprise Zone, and Invest Maryland Fund programs outlined in question four above. The State of Maryland is also taking steps to improve access by restructuring the State website to allow more business startup transactions to be completed online. These are by no means the only things we can do, but they are options we should carefully consider.

I feel that Salisbury can accommodate nearly any type of business. We need to entice businesses that can utilize the over 1,800 educated minds that Salisbury University graduates each year. Biotech, clean energy technology, green chemistry research firms, and pharmaceutical companies are some examples of high tech industries with well-paying jobs to which SU graduates could contribute. Manufacturing jobs are also important to employ both skilled (welders, electricians, etc.) and unskilled (assembly, maintenance, etc.) labor. The talents in this community are unlimited so we should not limit ourselves in the types of businesses we seek to utilize those talents.

Cohen: At a number of work sessions, I have raised these issues. We want to be careful with “incentives,” using them wisely and in a limited, targeted fashion. Otherwise, we end up with a mini-Chicago/Illinois version of a TIF nightmare (tax increment financing) and other fiscal problems.

Tailoring incentives to supportive locally born business in a fiscally responsible way would be one place to start. Rather than more giveaways, revolving loan funds and creative ways to help smaller businesses survive that crucial first one to three years of start-up or expansion should be considered, the latter already being the case with the reuse of the old Messick Ice Plant.

We can better attract businesses here by focusing on our assets and building our quality of life up. Businesses, while happy to take incentives or use them as a deciding point between two comparable locations, look for whether an area has a market for their product or service or a sustainable area for operations. Companies want to find locations with low crime, good schools, an educated labor force, housing availability and choices for their employees, and a community commitment to quality of life.

As I’ve noted before, among the types of businesses we should try to attract include those in the bio- and eco-research, product and service areas. With the natural assets of our region and demographics, companies in these fields should be attracted by those assets and would find a skilled labor force among our local college graduates, as well as offering a diverse set of jobs for those without higher educations. There are other “good fit” types of companies we can talk about, as well.

Spies: As we all know, well-paying jobs are necessary to our city’s growth and survival. One up and coming industry stands out in my mind as one that will remain vital and grow through upcoming decades and that would be an easy fit for Salisbury: the production of alternative energy source equipment, including, but not limited to solar panel and wind turbine technology.

Excellent and available manufacturing facilities lie within our city’s borders that can rapidly and easily be retooled to suit those industries’ needs. Attractive tax incentives are and can be can be at the forefront of the city’s encouragements to companies looking for an area with a moderate personal income levels, good transportation resources and a ready, well-educated and technologically experienced workforce.

Dryden: If it is decided that impact fees are necessary, then at a minimum, they should be set up in a way that would allow them to be staggered over time to avoid a business choosing a different town due to fees. We have the benefit of being at the intersection of two major highways so we will continue to experience retail growth in the future but we should continue to make every effort to attract manufacturing and technology employers to bring higher paying positions for our highly skilled workforce. In the end, changing our perception will be a good first step toward bringing in new business.

Dixon: Our City has gone from allowing new businesses to open with no fees or changes to demanding an outrageous amount for both. In order for the City to become more business-friendly, we need to take a more open and welcoming approach. The City needs to have a set and reasonable structure for all fees pertaining to all businesses. We need to regulate and revise those fees, consider short term moratoriums on certain fees and incentives (waivers) to bring businesses here. Many businesses do not start to turn a profit in their formative phases. I would like to implement a policy creating a reverse pyramid payment plan. Using this reverse pyramid scale allows the owner to know the amount due upfront, there by lowering the startup cost by paying a small payment in the early stages of the business. I also feel that by working in cooperation with the County Council, current businesses, prospective businesses, and area organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, we can work to streamline a variety of processes and duplication of services.

Taylor: No response at this time.

For decades, people have made grandiose plans to redevelop downtown Salisbury – closing the plaza blocks to vehicular traffic was one proposal which didn’t work so well. How would you propose to create a downtown area which is busy on a 24/7/365 basis and doesn’t roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m.? And what steps can the city take to help private investors make the downtown a more active area?

Boda: Interestingly other Cities and Towns in our area have successfully revitalized their downtowns.  Cambridge and Berlin are two prime examples of success stories. Looking at what they did in specifics, is going to be key.  Mayor Gee Williams did a spectacular job of bringing in the business community and asking “What can we do to help you?”. I couldn’t agree more with his sentiment and their success, net loss of 9 businesses to a net gain of 16, sure says they did something right.

I do believe the mantra of beds and heads is only part of the plan. I believe we need to attract two to three anchors, national chains such as a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Pottery Barn, Borders Bookstore, to complement the unique local businesses that are must. Working out waivers on extraction fees for businesses that wish to come in to the downtown is a must and working out deals to keep businesses already there.

Another idea is to expand Third Fridays from once a month to eventually every weekend. Making Downtown a destination point and generating traffic is what will attract the attention of businesses that will provide jobs and services to our community. 

Ford: I basically answered this question with my answer to number 5, so to recap, I feel that step one is to identify a community vision, step two is to use that vision to create a synergy of effort in the areas surrounding the plaza, and step three is to foster the actual realization of the vision plan.  Vision plans tend to arrive amid excitement and then fade away because no one protects them from obscurity.  I personally love the architecture of the Plaza, but realistically it may not be large enough to support itself.  Developing the waterfront would bring new life and energy into the city center area. 

Mitchell: It should be noted that some of the current programs downtown are working, such as Third Friday, and these programs need to be continued. We should encourage expansion of these programs along with scheduling more arts and cultural events downtown. I also agree with Chief Duncan and State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello’s proposal of installing safety cameras and motion activated lighting throughout the downtown district in an effort to deter crime and increase safety.

Parking on the Plaza is an issue; however, there is plenty of parking on either side of the buildings that line the plaza. There are some concerns about passage through to the plaza (depending on where you park) that may be helped with cameras and lighting in the passageways that lack those amenities. I do not believe that our downtown can or should be a 24/7 hub at this point because of the number of residents that live above the storefronts on the plaza. However, I do feel that we should encourage existing and future businesses to extend their hours to 9:00 p.m. so that visitors can come down after work to eat, play, and shop downtown. Public/private partnerships have great potential to revitalize much of our city, including the downtown area. The program that MainStreet Cambridge used downtown is a great example in that the private owners of the storefronts could waive the rental fee for a few months and may get long term tenants in return. The public part came from MainStreet Cambridge marketing the contest, accepting, reviewing, and selecting the applicants’ business plans to select the winners. Similar partnerships exist in Salisbury and can be expanded if we bring interested parties together for civil discussions to determine when and where to collaborate.

Cohen: In the short term, “busy on a 24/7/365 basis” is not likely to be a realistic goal. One factor is, a large portion of Downtown real estate is taken up by governmental entities, such as the state court building and the health department. Downtown faces other logistical obstacles as well.

One place to start is with code compliance and property standards. Poor property maintenance was a problem even before the economic nosedive, which is detrimental to those owners, managers and businesses making serious efforts.

The Town Gown Committee of Salisbury University formed an ad hoc group to take a look at what the University might do to foster revitalization of Downtown. They are thinking in terms of “baby steps” at this point.

Such involvement and “baby steps” are a good thing, but let’s think something in between “baby steps” and “grandiose,” too. When just one new business comes in at a time, there is often not enough activity around it to help it hold on until another arrives. Looking for ways to create a cluster of activity at once will help businesses sustain.

This question begs a comment about Old Station 16, the sale of which has served to further divide people rather than build a community. This is a perfect opportunity for the people of Salisbury to work together to develop “a sense of place” and create a real “public-private partnership.”

Soliciting thoughts from a wide spectrum of people, I found there is a lot of support for using the old firehouse as an open market showcasing local food, quality crafts and the arts. Instead of a “pennies on the dollar” giveaway involving Program Open Space riverfront property that was not surplused nor advertised for sale, the city taxpayers can hold onto their valuable asset during a recession – one that has historical value and great meaning to many — while private enterprise is nurtured in a mini-Reading Terminal Market.

This would serve a diverse market base, from upscale professionals to low-to-mod income area residents, and harness thousands of people who work downtown in the government buildings and at the hospital as an economic engine. This city needs a project everyone can be part of and this certainly would afford that opportunity.

Spies: Arts and entertainment are high on my list as those business types that can generate sufficient interest to a customer base that has money to spend and time to spend it. I also believe that the customer bases we need to greatly develop are family and youth oriented. With the library close at hand and hundreds of children and parents visiting each day, we should take advantage of the opportunity with restaurants and activities attractive to them. With our zoo and city park just blocks away, out of town visitors can be encouraged with signage, brochures and incentives to visit downtown with their children and to extend their stay with fun and affordable lunch, dinner, additional entertainment (live and other types) and retail. The marketing possibilities could be enormous. A possible slogan: Salisbury – Make a Kid’s Day!

The youth-oriented concept would also dovetail nicely with Salisbury’s 2010 designation as an All-America City®, which addressed, among the city’s most pressing challenges, youth issues. This retooling of downtown’s image would be an investment not only in our financial future, but also in the future of our youth.

The city can offer its assistance through additional advertising, promotion and tax incentives. With the theme of downtown being youth-oriented, especially if educational aspects are included, grant funding from state, federal and private sources will be more available than for many other types of projects.

Dryden: To begin with, I would like to get feedback from the downtown businesses to find out their concerns and recommendations. I would suggest considering the reduction or possible removal of parking meters and more convenient, well lit parking for business patrons. I would continue to encourage current activities such as the “Third Friday” events.

Dixon: I feel that in order for the Downtown Plaza to be a successful area 24/7/365, we as a community need to establish a welcoming atmosphere which includes residents feeling safe and secure. Furthermore, in order for the Plaza to generate more business, I feel that we need to attract multiple types of businesses, such as entertainment, restaurants, shops, and a variety of offices. The City can help with this by supporting Chief Duncan and her plan for the “Safety and Security of Downtown.” The City could also look into placing more lights in the area as well as making the plaza more accessible. The citizens of Salisbury and the surrounding areas can also take a stake in this process by taking the time to explore what the Downtown Plaza has to offer and stepping up to the plate. Rehabilitation of the downtown is a complex and difficult issue and requires a concentrated community effort to make it happen.

Taylor: No response at this time.

The fourth and final part will be put up on Thursday night.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.

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