FLORENCE — Despite the town’s efforts to improve its business friendliness in recent years, it still has a poor reputation around the state and what’s missing is an apology, an economic development consultant said.
“There needs to be an apology, and an acknowledgment that there were some incredibly difficult things that happened in the past,” Kimber Lanning, founder and executive director of Local First Arizona, told a joint meeting of the Town Council and Historic District Advisory Commission on Jan. 13. “We need to be accountable for what happened and apologize for it so we can move forward.”
Lanning clarified that’s not her opinion, just an observation of what she and her associates heard in conversations with business owners and community members in Florence that day. Lanning said building owners were going broke trying to make town-mandated code improvements “that were not even logical or practical” in the past.
“I think there’s still some open hostility in the room, and certainly a lack of trust,” she said.
Councilwoman Michelle Cordes added, rather than respond with defenses of what the town is doing today, “at some point you have to step back and not throw that stuff at them, and just literally hear what they’re saying and validate what they have to say.”
The town is offering financial help to downtown business owners who would like to upgrade their facades or install sprinklers, but Cordes said one merchant told her she wants nothing to do with the town’s money.
“I think our first step in moving forward is to stop defending our actions, and just hear what they said,” Cordes said. “What I heard was our businesses are so frustrated with us they don’t create a good environment for new businesses to come in, although they want it.
“For us to move forward we have to wipe the slate clean as well and say, ‘We’re sorry for what happened; today’s a new day. We’re going to move forward; we’re not going to make excuses. We’re going to accept the fact that we probably screwed up in some instances. We’ve made changes to move forward; now will you move forward with us?’”
Florence has developed a poor reputation around the state as a place to open a business, and town staff needs to understand that ringing cash registers help to pay their salaries, Lanning said.
Councilwoman Kristen Larsen said the town has been working on improving its service for years, and it’s frustrating to hear the old criticisms. “Where are we too strict? Where do we have flexibility?” she asked.
Deputy Town Manager/Town Clerk Lisa Garcia said it’s about how people feel after interacting with the town and its services.
“We should always strive to improve personal relationships with the community, and we should always strive to improve our customer service relationships,” Garcia said.
If someone has come away feeling the town isn’t trustworthy, or doesn’t understand its policies or rules, “we definitely owe those people a conversation,” Garcia continued. “Because how they feel says a lot about how much they love their town, and how much they want to continue to live in and do business in our town. I’m very appreciative this was brought to our attention because we have some work to do.”
Cathy Adam from the Historic District Advisory Commission said the town is doing good things, but the message isn’t connecting with people. “I want to have a conversation in a positive way and feel I’ve been heard, not talked at.”
Lanning said prospective businesses are doing their due diligence, talking to other building owners and hearing, “Whatever you do, don’t buy in Florence; run for your life, because it’s a nightmare doing business here.”
Town Manager Brent Billingsley said Florence has worked hard in the last couple of years to turn that reputation around, including training its staff. When someone is interested in locating downtown, the fire marshal, building official, planning director and Public Works director will be there free of charge, walk through the building with them and give them advice. Billingsley said the town has created a permit manual with step-by-step instructions for getting an older building ready to reopen.
“Florence does a lot of things other communities don’t do,” he said, but Florence also has to get the word out. The information is on the town website and on Facebook, “but we can’t get it out to the right folks.”
HDAC chairman Betty Wheeler said the town can make all this progress, “but if the businesses don’t know about it, it’s worthless.”
HDAC Commissioner Chris Reid said some towns have coffee with the manager or the mayor in a restaurant, “in neutral territory where you maybe hear a little bit about what’s on their minds,” and you can also share how the town might be able to help them.
Reid said the HDAC wasn’t trying to criticize the town, but is “seeing sunshine” and opportunities for the town to make some strides forward.
Lanning agreed: “Congratulations, you have some amazing resources and assets.” She said, “I can’t sell local if it sucks,” but quickly added Florence doesn’t have that problem.
She said out of $100 in spent in a local business, $43 stays in the local economy. For the same amount spent at a chain store, just $13 stays in the local economy. This is because the locally owned store is more likely to use a local accountant, a local graphic designer and other local services, while the chain is more likely to use services from its corporate office out of state. She continued that $10 million spent in local businesses creates 110 jobs. The same amount spent at retail chains creates 50 jobs. The same amount spent at Amazon creates just 14 jobs.
Lanning said renovating older buildings, or “adaptive reuse,” isn’t just a type of historic preservation, it’s an economic development strategy. A city must revitalize its core, rather than start over with a huge new development. After chain stores in a shiny new Tempe Marketplace pulled traffic away from Mill Avenue, that city saw sales tax decreases for seven years in a row, Lanning said.
When Lanning opened her Modified Arts gallery on Roosevelt Street in downtown Phoenix in 1999, the neighborhood wasn’t much to see, she said. A man shyly asked if she cared if he and his wife opened another gallery next door. “I jumped up and hugged him,” she said, and they started promoting a “First Friday” art walk. Today, the monthly event draws 30,000 people to the Roosevelt Row area.
, which now includes 22 galleries, five restaurants, three wine bars, two coffee shops, four retailers and a light-rail stop.
She urged residents to “check your ego at the door and rally around somebody’s idea,” including Florence merchants’ new “third Friday” after-hours event.
Florence Community Development Director Larry Harmer said a bill pending in the Legislature will give local governments more tools to deal with absentee landowners who neglect their buildings. Billingsley added to Lanning, “We need your support” to help get the bill passed.
Lanning’s organization, Local First Arizona, advocates for strong local business communities and the economic and cultural benefits of strong local economies.