BY DAVID IZRAELEVITZ
Los Alamos County Councilor
There was vigorous debate at Los Alamos County Council Chambers last Tuesday night regarding a proposed Pedestrian Retail Zone. Although the proposal to prohibit non-retail activity on the first floor of certain downtown segments failed, those with the intestinal fortitude to attend (or watch remotely) the lengthy proceedings learned a lot about the problems and possible solutions to re-invigorating our county’s retail environment. This meeting was the culmination of many, many community conversations among local property owners, businesses, economic development experts, and the public about the current status when it comes to retail, the quirks of Los Alamos retail, and ideas for moving forward. It is some of these forward-looking ideas that I would like to share with you.
We learned that the Los Alamos retail environment has some unique characteristics. We have (before and hopefully, after COVID) a robust lunchtime crowd, but insufficient tourist traffic to encourage businesses to open late on weekdays and on weekends. Most of our local retail space is set up for larger enterprises and it is financially difficult for property owners to break these up into smaller areas. Many local businesses have difficulties hiring and retaining staff for many reasons, from lack of affordable housing for service-area employees to lack of sufficient daycare options. I even learned that putting in a handicapped-accessible new bathroom can cost upwards of $100,000. On the other hand, we learned that strong, long-term business leases, as Los Alamos National Laboratory and its subcontractors and support businesses offer, can provide the financial “heft” that permits property owners to augment a property with retail that makes a business property more vibrant and attractive, a win-win scenario.
So, what can we do, even if the idea of forcing property owners to rent to retail businesses turned out to have legal, economic, and implementation barriers? One new tool that has just been added to our arsenal is the ability to judiciously use local funds to assist retail businesses, something that was illegal as recently as six months ago. Although I defer to experts on the details, I hope that we can do things like improving accessibility, fire/safety, and facade of our downtown properties in collaboration with property owners, subject to a well-defined and achievable public benefit such as making it economically feasible to configure properties for retail use. Another emerging tool is the use of the Metropolitan Redevelopment Area effort in White Rock, another way to use public funds to assist retail districts. I eagerly await the completion of the State-required development plan so we can get started in working with White Rock property owners, businesses, and the community in general.
Another area that has been considered for a long time and will be under serious research once our Downtown Master Plan is completed is the construction of a municipal parking garage in the townsite. This will permit our downtown parcels to be more efficiently used for retail businesses rather than as parking lots. We are also looking at encouraging residential construction within the downtown. This will increase pedestrian traffic in the evenings and weekends organically and will encourage local retail businesses to open longer hours without waiting for tourist traffic to emerge. The trend toward home businesses and remote work will also add weekday and lunchtime pedestrian traffic without additional pressure on car-centered resources.
We can also think outside the box when we think about “retail.” My wife is a quilter and often shops at Atomic City Quilts. To make this business “pencil” they team up with Close-Knit Yarn Cooperative to share floor space, expenses, and staffing. Maybe such cooperative efforts can work in other areas such as food courts and tourist shops. This may make larger downtown spaces amenable to retail uses without unnecessary financial burdens.
Successful retail doesn’t just depend on the availability of retail real estate. New and adapting businesses must have a good business plan, good data about current and emerging needs, and access to lessons learned from other successful business owners. Los Alamos MainStreet in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce is spearheading a new business accelerator program that includes storefront training and grants to test concepts in a local currently vacant downtown property. To find out more, go to https://www.losalamosmainstreet.com/retail-accelerator.
The above are just some of the opportunities being put forth. There are local efforts by the Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation to market our collective vacant properties more broadly; Dan Ungerleider, the County’s new Economic Development Administrator, brings new ideas and energy from the Chicago area, and is already reaching out to local businesses to get a feel for the local environment; several successful local business owners have offered to share their Los Alamos-specific insights on running businesses here. I hope that we can formalize this offer into a “Local Business Academy” to share this experience more widely, and maybe invite other business development professionals and academic resources such as the UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
These are uncertain times in our economy, from the effect of COVID on long-term purchasing and employment trends to the impact of internet purchases and remote work. In some ways, we are at a disadvantage from other communities that are not at a “cul-de-sac” or those that have strong tourism draws anchoring retail traffic. On the other hand, we have financial, professional, and creative resources that are the envy of most other small communities in America. I am optimistic that, through collaborative engagement among all of us, from local businesses to property owners, to governmental efforts, we will find a viable path forward to make our community an even better place to live, work and enjoy.