Consultants: Federal dollars, strategy can build better Northfield
NORTHFIELD — With the scars of Tropical Storm Irene and spring flooding in 2011 still visible, Northfield may end up in better shape than it started thanks to federal dollars.
Wednesday evening, a group of seven firms — architects, engineers, grant writers, and marketing and branding experts — gave a presentation to residents on how to improve the downtown. The presentation came after the firms spent two days talking with residents, merchants and citizen groups about what they wanted Northfield to look like. Consultants took that feedback and gave their suggestions on how to move forward.
Northfield was the last on a list of eight communities, including Barre and Waterbury, to have such a presentation and brainstorming session. The consultants were able to visit those communities thanks to $500,000 in federal money.
After Irene ripped through Vermont in August 2011, state officials contacted Mississippi to see how people in that state rebuilt downtowns after their own natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2006.
Tripp Muldrow, a marketing expert who assisted in Mississippi’s reconstruction, said this process of working with consultants via federal money is exactly how that state rebuilt.
With the presentation complete, consultants will put the finishing touches on their initial assessment and continue to work with residents until June to finalize a report that lays out the steps the community can take to improve its downtown. After June, the experts will continue to assist Northfield with grant applications to get those projects done.
Improvements discussed included renovation of storefronts to make them more modern and inviting; installation of banners on lamp posts to give Northfield an identity; creation of a Northfield brand it can market to attract visitors; revisions to entrances at some stores to make them comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act; and installation of gateway signs made out of the same materials as the town’s iconic covered bridges.
During the presentation, Muldrow talked about ways Northfield could expand its market and laid out how dollars in town were being spent by residents and people passing through.
A ZIP code study was conducted over a seven-day period in late March involving two Northfield dining establishments and eight retailers to find out who was shopping and eating in Northfield. Muldrow said the study revealed that 61 percent of 828 customers were from Northfield.
“Out of all the communities we’ve worked in … this is the most locally oriented we’ve ever seen,” he said. “That’s a positive thing.”
Muldrow said the study also revealed that about 20 percent of customers were Norwich University students, a fact that may surprise some residents.
“We heard a lot of folks say Norwich students don’t come anymore to downtown,” Muldrow said. “This is proof positive that Norwich students are playing a very key economic role.”
Muldrow also talked about how Northfield is growing. When looking at the combined ZIP codes of Roxbury and Northfield, Muldrow said, the estimated population of those areas in 2013 was 7,354 residents. He said the population grew by 7.5 percent between 2000 and 2010.
“We know, anecdotally, from talking to folks at Norwich a lot of that growth is attributable to growth on the campus of the student population,” he said. “There’s not an influx of people coming in and building houses. It’s a lot of student growth.”
“I will say, though, growth in this state is critically important,” Muldrow said. “Most communities we work in in Vermont, the population of the community has declined. To have growth in any facet of your population is critically important and a good thing. About the only area of true growth in the state is Chittenden County. We worked down in the lower part of the state — Brattleboro, Springfield — we’re looking at a 7 percent decrease in population.”
Muldrow also talked about potential areas of growth, business-wise, based on demographics and where money is being spent. Of the $162 million residents spend each year on retail items, Muldrow said, $116 million stays in town.
“Every year, you pack up $46 million and you send it off to other markets,” he said, suggesting money is going to supermarkets, clothing stores and retail establishments in other towns. He said a big chunk of that, about $31 million, goes to automotive dealerships the town simply doesn’t have.
The town excels in gas stations and hardware stores, where Northfield imports money from other communities, he said.
Muldrow said there is opportunity for growth in the categories of groceries, clothing and sporting goods.
“The other big opportunity is food,” he said. “And that’s dining out. You have some great restaurants here already, but there’s actually room to support more. That’s both in quick-service dining and sit-down dining.”
Muldrow said there is a real need in town for a cohesive marketing strategy to tell the story of what is happening in Northfield. He said plenty is going on to improve Northfield that neighboring communities might not know about and that the town needs to get that message out to attract people.
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