Like many commercial districts, Astoria, a tight-knit urban neighborhood in Queens, NY, [“A Small Business Barometer”, New York Times, Nov. 8, 2010] is a changing neighborhood. Yesterday’s immigrant residents make room for today’s mix of residents – who often arrive with a different set of spending habits. Helping local businesses ride the wave of change is often part of a commercial district managers job.

Change can be difficult – and the recession has helped speed up the cycle for some businesses who were already facing a shrinking customer base. I sometimes get asked by commercial district managers how they can help existing businesses keep up with these changes in demographics. Part of the answer is helping local businesses keep their finger on the pulse of these changes – which may mean reworking their product mix and repositioning their stores to meet a new segment of growing demographic. Commercial district managers can serve as intermediaries in this effort, sharing important market and demographic information via newsletters and/or regular presentations to business owner’s where critical information and market data can be shared and used to grow retail sales.

Opening new businesses is yet another challenge, made more difficult by some of the very typical problems that businesses face in communities across the nation. Below are some of the challenges cited by business owners in the NYTimes article, coupled with a few suggestions for how commercial district managers might help overcome them.

  • Difficulty getting banks loans and finding affordable financing. Can the commercial district manager identify non-profit lenders or government agencies who can provide financing where private banks cannot?
  • A lengthy and unpredictable permitting process. Small business owners are often cash strapped – and the longer the doors are closed with expenses piling up and no revenue coming in can cripple a business before it is even open. Can the commecial district manager, through existing relationships with governement officials or knowledge of the process, help facilitate permitting, or at least educate a new business owners on what to expect so that the process doesn’t take any longer than it needs to? Can the commercial district management entity and it’s board of directors advocate for a streamlined permitting process to help small businesses?
  • Deciding what merchandise mix makes sense for a neighborhood means knowing the community. As one business owner asked “The big question for us is, are people going to buy a $100 frame or a $300 frame?” Can the commercial district management entity commission regular marketing studies and share this data, and an analysis of how to interpret and act on the data, with local business owners?
  • Help managing the vagaries of community approval, including in community resistance to a liquor license, slowed opening of a restaurant by months and added significantly to legal costs. Can the commercial district manager, who likely has cultivated a good relationship with community leaders, help anticipate challenges to permit requests and thereby help the business prepare adequately for public presentations and meetings?

These are just a few ways in which commercial district managers can help grease the wheels of economic development in the district. We’d love to hear other suggestions from our readers.