BY MARLAN JONES
The Mendenhall Area Chamber of Commerce invited the city’s merchants to attend a forum on Monday, August 14, at 5:30 p.m. at Flynt’s Restaurant.
The meal was sponsored by Peoples Bank and PriorityOne Bank.
Chamber President and Mayor Todd Booth explained the purpose of the Merchant Forum, saying, “As Chamber president, I feel like there is some disconnect between our merchants and the Chamber. As mayor I see a disconnect between all three.”
Booth said he feels it is extremely important to bridge the gap between the merchants, the Chamber, and the city. He explained that the only way to accomplish this was by hearing from the merchants and taking note of their concerns.
He said, “We had a forum over three years ago, and it was good. We want to connect the merchants with the Chamber, and listen to their views.”
Booth said he hoped to gain an idea of the direction the merchants wanted to see Mendenhall take. He said, “We want to hear the ideas and suggestions of those heavily invested in our town, because without the merchants we have no economy. They play a vital role in the function of our city.”
He reiterated a point he has made since he became mayor, about the importance of expanding Mendenhall and assisting the taxpayers by getting travelers on Highway 49 to stop and shop. He relayed a conversation he had with a citizen who spoke of not wanting to see Mendenhall grow. The citizen told Booth that the appeal of Mendenhall was in its quaint atmosphere.
Booth said, “Without growing our economy we can’t fix our streets. We would have to raise taxes, go up on water bills, etcetera, so it’s essential that we grow our economy.”
Booth said he has a vision for Mendenhall and wants to make sure the town feels the same. He explained that a goal of this merchant forum was to establish an Economic Development Committee made up of business owners who meet once a month to work on strategies.
Approximately 23 business owners attended the forum. Booth encouraged them to speak freely and give positive and negative feedback. He began the forum by highlighting the progress the Chamber has made on revitalizing Mendenhall and the rejuvenation of downtown and asked them to think of ways to improve the city. Booth mentioned that he was promised a red light that would assist with stopping traffic on Highway 49 but plans have yet to be put in motion. One business owner asked why the city had to wait, and was it possible to install the red light themselves. Booth revealed that the installation of a red light would cost approximately $750,000 which was not in the city’s budget. He also said he was promised a frontage road from Highway 540 to Highway 13.
During the forum it was stated that all businesses in Mendenhall have the same problem which is not enough traffic. Many agreed that the problem stems from a lack of younger couples residing in the city. There is a need to build the community and plant younger people in town. Evelyn Copeland said, “If you don’t give young people a reason to stop they won’t.”
Amanda Johnston owner of New Beginnings asked how many people does the Chamber require its members to recruit a month. Booth answered that there are no requirements. Johnston compared the situation to football and gaining ground gradually. She stated the city needs to start with the basics, and build to get what is needed. She said the city needs more commerce to generate interest. Johnston said, “It should be a requirement that if you are on the Chamber you should be recruiting to generate interest. To go from good to great you have to have the right people in the right places.”
She also said that it is not about competition, but instead it is about building relationships and making people feel special and excited about the town.
After dinner Alderman Tim Gray presented an interesting issue that not only affects Mendenhall, but other small towns across the country. Gray read an article that said Americans spend nearly 1 billion dollars on Amazon. Gray said that it broke down to approximately $3,120 per household being spent with no tax money coming back into the city. Gray said with those number applied to Mendenhall that is over three million dollars. He exclaimed that this was the biggest competition plaguing local merchants in small towns. He felt that it was imperative to find a way to compete and get people into stores.
Business owner Michelle Rankin said that it was impossible to compete with being able to sit at home and order exactly what you want and have it shipped to you at no cost. She believed what the town is missing is the community. She said that the town needed to offer activities and business that promoted social interactions such as art, coffee shops, and music. Rankin also spoke of the importance of encouraging each other as business owners.
Booth called on Nick Floyd to present the idea of an Economic Development Committee made of business owners to assist the Board of Aldermen. Floyd said that small towns cannot make personal decisions and be successful. The town must make sound business decisions in order to grow. Floyd described Mendenhall as a gold mine that has yet to realize its full potential, and he believes the first step in doing this is everyone sticking together. Floyd explained that the committee would be responsible for recruiting and advising the Board of Aldermen on ideas to attract new businesses. Johnston suggested that a grant writer be a part of the committee to help upstart businesses with getting available funds.
Floyd said, “We have to create something that everyone wants.” He asked the crowd what can the city do different to generate traffic and attract new businesses. Someone said liquor, and the topic was discussed. After being asked, Booth explained the requirements to establish liquor sales. He said that a petition with 500 signatures would be needed before it could be brought before the Board of Aldermen put to a vote. He also revealed that it was attempted by a business owner nearly 2 years ago but the owner was only able to get half of the signatures required. Booth also stated that businesses such as Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings have all shown interest in Mendenhall until hearing the liquor laws.
Other ideas such as using vacant window fronts to advertise existing businesses, and pooling resources to share a billboard were also discussed. The members of the forum also discussed the advantages of social media and deterring vandalism. Before closing, Booth revealed that Andy McMillan has taken over as Chamber President. He said that it was important to get a fresh set of eyes and ideas into positions. Nick Floyd will lead the formation of the Economic development Committee.