U-Imagine Research Provides Development Framework
Since last fall, students from Ursinus College’s U-Imagine Center have been researching how to make Collegeville’s Main Street and the connecting shopping centers into more vibrant business districts. Led by U-Imagine’s Entrepreneur in Residence Maureen Cumpstone, the students :
- reviewed information from America’s “50 Most Successful College Towns,”
- researched 10 liberal arts and peer institutions,
- studied many revitalization plans, and
- interviewed economic development experts.
On Feb. 24th, students Alix Segil and Michael Margargee presented to the members of the Borough’s Business Development Committee (BDC). Their results showed that the business districts of the most successful college towns shared these important traits:
High business density
95 percent of the business districts’ stores were located right next to each other, and followed the principle of “access and linkage”—clustering small unique businesses closely together near college campuses. About 87 percent of the stores were independent and small businesses, and the business district was highly walkable. This density creates a compact shopping and entertainment district with the perception of lots of retail and other exciting options.
An attractive anchor
That “anchor” could be a lively community and public space, or other attribute which spurred activity and attracted people to the town. In Eugene, OR, the anchor was the town’s proximity to outdoor recreation, biking, hiking, camping. An anchor could also be a treasured arts theater, bowling alley, or something else that was special that drew people to the area. Or the anchor could also be the College itself. For example, Ursinus ranks high on having a beautiful campus which could be promoted. The Perkiomen Trail, which runs through the borough, and the creek itself could also be seen as an anchor and a way to escape to nature.
A unique character
Roughly 94% of the college towns possessed something unusual that was a draw. For example, their commercial buildings might be quirky, and that quirkiness was part of the town’s charm. One of Boulder, CO’s main attractions was Pearl Street, a highly walkable four-block area lined with restaurants and specialty shops. Or the town could be unique in other ways, such as known for the arts, its summer beer gardens and fall Oktoberfest. This uniqueness was different for every town.
Less dependence on student economics
Liberal Arts College towns in general had 10 percent more business diversity, with more places to shop and hang out with varied price ranges attracting residents as well as the students. At Dickinson College, a highly popular noodle shop Issei Noodle was a favorite of students and residents. Students enjoyed the food at a cheap price, and they would stay and study there. Successful college towns also often had small boutiques, unique retail, and farmers markets.
A high safety focus
The Liberal Arts College towns also had a 13 percent higher safety focus and 7 percent more independent/small businesses. Unfortunately for the students, those towns also had 16 percent less nightlife. Collegeville’s business district needs to be patronized by the residents year-round so it is not adversely affected when the students go home for the summer.
The students noted that revitalizing Collegeville’s business districts would boost quality-of-life, increase prosperity, spur business development, repurpose empty buildings, reflect the history of the community and promote civic pride and community involvement. The students pointed out that “In Collegeville, we have Ursinus College and a beautiful trail. We need to define our anchor, and we need to have some strong draws to establish the town as a regional destination. We need more nightlife, and more public spaces. And (walkability is) also important.”
The students also told the committee that their research showed that when “anchors” are further away, other colleges offered transportation options to get the students to their anchors.
When asked what their biggest complaints were about Collegeville, the students stated that without a car, the Collegeville Diner was the furthest that they would walk. “There is not enough commercial businesses or business variety for students.” They would like cafes open from 9 to 5 p.m. to study there, and restaurants/bars that are open late. Sidewalks are also not in good shape. (Note that cafes, restaurants/bars, and walkability also ranked high in 2 CEDC surveys.)
Big vs Small College Town
The research further found that in a town with a big school like State College and Penn State University, the campus drives the economy. In a town with a small liberal arts college, the economy is driven by the community. Some already had a downtown, some built one. But the community, albeit working with the college, needs to initiate and drive the development. Business density then needs to hit a tipping point in order for the town to become a vibrant destination.
The Business Development Committee will be incorporating the students’ findings into Collegeville’s Revitalization Plan
Montco Planning Drafts Collegeville’s Revitalization Plan
Mike Lowrey, the Borough of Collegeville’s Montgomery County Planning Commission (MCPC) Community Planner, provided the committee with a draft scope of Collegeville’s proposed revitalization plan. The plan covered demographics, land use and zoning, character of the community, and regional destinations, then looked into transportation, parking and historic properties.
It also will include a market assessment of Collegeville’s business districts and make recommendations. The last sections of the plan identify and prioritize issues and make recommendations for moving forward. Once the Business Development Committee makes sure the overview contains all the major sections they want to address and approves it, Mike will help the committee begin writing the plan.
Engaging All Collegeville Residents
An important part of the Revitalization Plan will be to involve the entire community, business owners, the College, and as many other stakeholder groups as possible to understand everyone’s ideas and aspirations for Collegeville’s business districts.
At Ursinus College’s April 4 Music on Main event the BDC and students from the U-Imagine Center will kick off a community engagement plan with an information booth where they will answer questions and provide visuals and handouts. And there will be more opportunities throughout the spring, summer and fall for everyone to get involved.
Explaining ESRI Marketing Data
Mike described Collegeville Borough’s primary market as the residents within a 10-minute drive of the borough’s products and services. This is our most important market, followed by those willing to drive 15 minutes and then up to 20 minutes for our goods and services.
Mike explained that ESRI data shows:
- the average demand – what customers in a 10 minute drive time spend annually on a market segment,
- the supply – the average annual retail sales for each segment, and
- the retail gap or “leakage” – the amount spent outside our market because people don’t find the product or services in our market and buy it elsewhere.
The topline data show that there is capacity for more businesses to locate in Collegeville Borough, especially those who cater to food and drink, clothing and health. The borough is losing $33 million a year in food and drink sales, $31 million a year in clothing and accessories sales, and $23 million in health and personal care sales and services.
Mike pointed out that this Department of Commerce data goes much more in-depth, and that the committee members should analyze the data and check out all the leakages. It is very positive data and can be shared with existing businesses as well as to be used to recruit new businesses into the area. Mike pointed out that “This data shows that Collegeville has family restaurant potential; people are willing to spend from $100 to $200 for dinner in a restaurant.”
Committee member Alex Tweedie noted that the residents within our 10 minute core area have the highest income (Median Household Income of $124,000) of the entire area, and that the retail at the edge of our catchment area (at the 20-minute drive time) are competing with us for customers.
Retail markets run in cycles. Mike hails from Media Borough where at one time Granite Run Mall was thriving. But then people began moving to downtown Media, and wanted the small-town shopping experience. Now developers are knocking the mall down. Meanwhile, Media’s downtown is packed on the weekends and the town is closing the streets to keep up with the demand for the downtown’s unique restaurants and retail.
Development by Design
Collegeville Borough’s Economic Development consultant Steve Barth of Barth Consulting Group (BCG) refers to what’s going on in Collegeville as Development by Design: A proactive design approach that involves and includes the entire community. Steve says” Everyone is now working together: the residents, the borough, the College, the BDC, the building inspector, and in time, business and property owners and outside investors,” with the borough manager coordinating the work.
Development by Design melds all the data sources we’ve reported on here in the Notebook, as well as upcoming 2020 Resident surveys and town hall meetings, and Ursinus College student and faculty surveys, into one master retail/business recruitment list. “(We’ll use this) master list to court and recruit new businesses redirecting the conversation from business we want to businesses that want us”, said Barth.
It takes a long time to get new businesses through the development process, involving interaction with commercial property owners, the Borough, zoning and codes, fit-out, business plan reviews, marketing and merchandising. “It is a complex process with many layers. We are currently completing the individual steps to accelerate this process and assemble a strong marketing packet to attract and court the type of new businesses the entire community wants.”
Created in January 2018, the Borough of Collegeville Business Development Committee oversees economic development and business recruitment in the borough. It is made up of volunteers from the borough and administered by a Borough Council member.