BRATTLEBORO—For eight days in October, downtown merchants collected patrons’ zip codes to assist Building a Better Brattleboro and consulting firm Arnett Muldrow & Associates develop a long-term economic development strategy.
Data culled from the zip code collection helped snap a virtual group photo of downtown Brattleboro shoppers as they answered questions like what types of goods and services they spend money on, questions designed to find out what types of retail items “leak” money away from downtown.
The survey was a preliminary step. Arnett Muldrow will file a full report and recommendations with BaBB in January.
More than 1,900 zip codes were collected by 23 merchants from Oct. 13 to 22. They revealed that 70 percent of the zip codes were local, or from the nearby tri-state region.
Of the local zips, 42 percent belonged to 05301, one encompassing Brattleboro, Guilford and portions of Marlboro and Dummerston.
Andrea Livermore, BaBB executive director, said people have expressed concern that 42 percent seems low for zip covering such a large geographical area.
Visitors also came from 41 states and the District of Columbia, four provinces, seven countries and two unidentified military locations.
“There’s no way we can discount the importance of visitor traffic,” said Tripp Muldrow, a planner with Arnett Muldrow.
Muldrow said that among the towns he has evaluated, Brattleboro ranks in the top five for visitor traffic.
Livermore said “it was a shot in the arm” to hear Muldrow refer to Brattleboro as a “world-class downtown.”
“Now, you have to start acting like it,” he told Livermore.
Markets, opportunities and leaks
Muldrow told BaBB members at a Nov. 16 meeting that the zip codes broke shoppers into primary, secondary and unique markets.
Brattleboro and Marlboro residents comprised Brattleboro’s primary-market customers, shopping almost exclusively in town.
The secondary market — customers who frequent downtown, but who also shop elsewhere — included those from Jamaica, Newfane, Putney, Townshend, Vernon, Wilmington, and Chesterfield and West Chesterfield, N.H.
Greenfield, Mass., and Hinsdale, N.H., held the “unique” market, showing up in downtown the least.
Muldrow calculated a potential $375 million in spending for downtown if, and only if, customers don’t “leak” their money to outside areas, instead buying all their items or services from Brattleboro merchants.
He said only $234 million of that potential is flowing through downtown.
But, said Muldrow, if Brattleboro could prevent the dollars leaking away it could expand its cash flow by $100 million. Persuading downtown’s secondary market alone to stop shopping elsewhere could harness a potential $78 million.
The firm found would-be local customers tend to buy furniture, clothing, shoes and jewelry from out of town.
Muldrow suggested building businesses through a two-pronged approach to stopping the leaks.
The first entailed a process of growing from within, by expanding existing businesses and helping them thrive. The next step would involve attracting new businesses.
Working with existing businesses will be important because downtown is almost at 100 percent occupancy, said Livermore and Muldrow.
Grocery stores pull in sales from residents of towns other than Brattleboro. Restaurants also pull in outside traffic and contribute the strength of downtown. Muldrow said quick-serve family restaurants — but not fast-food franchises — would help that market grow.
Muldrow told BaBB members the town does well with sporting goods and could “grow” its book sales. He suggested adding a general electronics store to the downtown mix.
Muldrow posited that Walmart, which absorbs about $22 million in sales, could lurk behind the lack of general merchandise in town.
The big take-aways
Muldrow said none of the merchants he interviewed told him they were in “dire straits.” According to Muldrow, merchants spoke with “guarded optimism,” while acknowledging how special Brattleboro is.
Other communities currently working with Muldrow are mired in a sense of desperation that is absent in Brattleboro.
“I don’t want to sound too Pollyanna-ish,” said Muldrow. “But it leaves you feeling really good.”
Muldrow said the economic shakeup of the Walmart in Hinsdale, built in 1992, has “played itself out.” Any stores that were going to close due to losing sales to Walmart have already done so, he said, describing Walmart and the state liquor store in Hinsdale as “a two-trick pony” — two types of retail that Brattleboro has moved beyond.
When the existing Walmart moves up Route 119 and reopens as a Super Walmart that sells groceries, it might cut into Brattleboro’s grocery trade, but Muldrow doesn’t anticipate any of the town’s grocery stores closing as a result.
Rarely does Muldrow see a faraway zip code — a sign of a singular customer, one whose movements can be tracked with obvious precision — hop from shop to shop as it did downtown. Alaska and Hawaii appeared in the survey — a good sign, he said, that tells him visitors coming downtown tend to browse, whereas locals tend to “target shop.”
“Downtown Brattleboro is a specialty district friendly to visitors, yet still relevant to locals,” Muldrow said.
Muldrow views this as a strength. He hopes people in town will take a long look at how best to maintain a balance between services for locals and services for visitors. He used the Latchis as a symbol of this balance. The Latchis Hotel caters to visitors, yet the theater and Flat Street Brew Pub and Tap Room Restaurant welcome both.
“And that’s a wonderful mix,” he said.
Muldrow hopes residents realize they have a “high-performing” downtown that still has staple retail stores like the Brattleboro Food Co-op and Brown & Roberts Hardware.
He hopes residents will think about how their downtown grows and continue to acknowledge the engine it is for the economic health of Brattleboro, “because it could be taken for granted,” he said.
Downtown will face a few challenges, such as the New England-wide challenge of flat population growth.
But, Muldrow feels there is one “fun” strategy challenge ahead for Brattleboro, a town high on quality.
“How can Brattleboro continue to play in the big league? Because it is big league,” Muldrow said.
Livermore said she looks forward to reading Arnett Muldrow’s full report in January and will use the data to apply for grants toward long-term economic development strategies.