This month’s series of posts is designed to help communities build a strong, resilient and attractive downtown business mix.

  • 80 percent of growth comes from within, whether from expansion of existing businesses or spinoff businesses by local employees.
  • It is very difficult to recruit new businesses to a community without a core of existing satisfied businesses. Prospective business owners will want to talk to their future neighbors, and if the report is negative, they will likely look elsewhere for a new home.
  • Understanding existing businesses’ needs will help craft an effective marketing and business assistance program that benefits all district businesses, new and established.

De Pere business walk

If a concerted effort has not been made to establish a business network, a district should first start with an existing business retention survey. This can be accomplished relatively informally with a “business walk,” a coordinated series of visits to area businesses carried out by a group of stakeholders including downtown board members, elected officials and municipal staff, as well as other local partners. The goals of this walk should be to make personal connections between community leaders and business owners, understand local market dynamics, and identify opportunities or challenges in the local market that may impact future business operations.

During the walk, teams of two individuals visit multiple businesses successively over a period of a few hours, and then reconvene with the larger group to compare notes and report findings. Each business visit should be fairly short—approximately 15 to 20 minutes—and should consist of a set of basic questions designed to identify opportunities and challenges in the district and gain a better understanding of the local business climate. Questions might include:

  • How long has your company been in business? How long at this location?
  • What are you most proud of about the company?
  • What do you like best about doing business in this community/district?
  • Over the past three years, have foot traffic and sales increased, decreased or stayed the same for your business? To what do you attribute these changes?
  • What is the biggest challenge your business is currently facing?
  • What changes do you envision happening in your business in the next five years? (options might include growth, contraction, sale, relocation, diversification, etc.)
  • What change or local support would help make your business more successful here?
  • Are there any other businesses that you wish were located nearby that would help your business?

In addition to the objectives previously identified, the results of the business walk will allow the organization and municipality to more effectively target programs and policies to benefit district businesses, and will help identify business leaders who might provide local market testimonials or serve as potential mentors to new businesses.