More than 75 retailers, realtors, business owners and concerned residents braved the rain on Tuesday, February 23 for a brainstorming session aimed at detecting and overcoming the problems besetting the Village’s ailing business district.
Josh Mandell, the unopposed candidate for mayor in Larchmont’s March elections, said reviving the Village’s business district will be a top priority of his administration. “We have no control over the economy, but we can create an environment that is conducive to business,” he said.
The three-hour brainstorming session, organized by the Larchmont Chamber of Commerce at Tequila Sunrise, was led by Jeff Shaffer, a Larchmont resident and marketing consultant.
Mr. Schaffer’s business is Flywheel Accelerated Solutions, and the idea was to work fast. Quickly directing the crowd to tables scattered around the room, he asked participants to identify essential problems, threats and opportunities. “The empty stores are a given,” he said. “Come up with the problems that are behind the empty stores,” he urged. (See: Empty Stores.)
In rapid succession, groups came up with (long) lists of problems on giant post-it notes. They then voted (using red, green and blue stickers) on the most important issues, and crafted potential solutions.
Problems ranged from landlord issues (“Absentee landlords won’t lower their rents and don’t care if the stores are empty,” reported one group) to many complaints about the Village’s regulations and building codes. (See: Businesses Struggle; Indifferent Landlords Add To Pressures.)
But Larchmont residents didn’t escape unscathed: one criticism was that too few residents patronize local stores and shop instead online, in White Plains or at the “big box” stores.
“Residents don’t understand that a failing business district has direct impact on their own financial well-being,” said Judy Graham, owner of Pink on Palmer. “It affects their property values and their taxes.”
The Big Four
Three hours and much discussion later, Mr. Schaffer said four primary themes had emerged from the evening’s work, and he asked for volunteers to work with the Chamber of Commerce on new sub-committees to address them.
1. Attracting complementary stores
It was agreed the Village needs more diversity in retail offerings, both in terms of price and product, although some felt Larchmont needs more high-end stores, while others felt too many residents are priced out of shopping here. The subcommittee working in this area will do research to identify current demographics and what local residents would like in the business district. They will also work to develop a Larchmont Identity campaign.
2. Parking problems and attracting new customers
With so many empty storefronts in the Village, finding a parking space is less of an issue now, but it needs to be addressed if Larchmont is to attract more shoppers. A subcommittee will focus on ways to attract a higher percentage of shoppers from 10538 and beyond and to address the parking issues. Ideas include developing a new website, educating residents on the easy of shopping in Larchmont and what is available, and developing other materials to draw people to the business district
3. Doing away with obstacles
The winner of the biggest problem, hands down, was “regulations.” There was widespread applause at mentions of expensive code compliance, protracted approvals for renovations or lack of flexibility on parking, street displays, signs or awnings.
And despite a general unhappiness with current governmental regulations, some wanted to see a crackdown on unsightly empty storefronts.
“Whew!” Mr. Shaffer said as he reviewed the list of suggested improvements to regulations . “There sure is a rat’s nest of things here to peel aw- but it’s got to be done.”
Anne McAndrews, a member of Larchmont’s Board of Trustees, stayed through the entire meeting, occasionally wincing at the strident criticism of local government but gamely explaining that some of the regulations are set by county, state and federal laws. She noted also that the upcoming renovation of the Palmer Avenue streetscape should help create a more attractive business environment.
The subcommittee on regulations will work with Village officials to remove some of the bottlenecks and address the parking problems
4. Helping landlords
While absentee landlords received much criticism during the evening, there was an appreciation for the difficulties they face to bring their buildings up to code and meet the Village’s requirements. A subcommittee will explore whether the Village could offer tax abatements or other incentives to help.
Two days after the meeting, Chamber President Jeff Rosenberg said his group is already hard at work at forming the subcommittees and developing tasks and timetables for them. “We need to take advantage of the momentum,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “It was a great start – but now we need to follow it up.”