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Thread: Small-town downtown business surveys?

  1. #1
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    Small-town downtown business surveys?

    Hello,

    I'm writing and conducting a survey for a small New England coastal / touristy town to uncover some information on what drives year-round "vibrancy" - what mix of businesses, what individual business characteristics (goods or services sold, target market) and hopefully gather some ideas that might encourage other entrepreneurs to fill retail space downtown instead of on nearby transportation corridors.

    These are vague and somewhat qualitative questions, but I was wondering if anyone has conducted a similar survey and gotten some good quantitative data. I'd be interested to see or read what you've done.

    Also wondering what people's experience has been with door-to-door surveying - better to leave a multi-page questionairre, or come back later and ask in person? How about a URL for an online survey?

    Thanks!

  2. #2
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    Hi, coming from another small, touristy coastal Maine town who is about to embark on an economic development plan, I'll be watching this space to see what you get for answers!

    OT; I see you moved from here to out there - I love San Francisco as much as I love it here

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    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Sorry to add to the girth of the thread, but not the information sought.

    As a small town economic development manager and planner I will be looking for any survey ideas as well. We have conducted surveys of the townsfolk, but not of existing businesses.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

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    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Who are you surveying, business owners, customers, tourist, stakeholders, and/or local officials?

    Do you or your community have an economic development staff person? They should have the business characteristics already on file. If you are the ED person then you should consider starting a retention program where you can learn about you local businesses and build trust. I have found that when I do these visits to a new company they are very guarded the first time few times through.

    Trying to get ideas for building entrepreneurs capacity is better accomplished through the local CDC, chamber or community college. When I have asked locals about entrepreneurial assistance all I get is the types of businesses they would like to see not the type of businesses they want to start or the help they need to start a business.

    Have you looked into becoming a member of the Main Street Program through the National Historic Trust? It is not a perfect program but it is a good resource for maintaining and increasing activity a downtown environment.

    Before figuring out what survey method you want to use it is better to figure out who you are going to survey. Different methods are okay for different groups.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

  5. #5
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Brocktoon View post
    If you are the ED person then you should consider starting a retention program where you can learn about you local businesses and build trust. I have found that when I do these visits to a new company they are very guarded the first time few times through.
    Could you elaborate on this? I know it is off-topic, you could PM me if you want.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

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    Survey questions

    luckless pedestrian - San Francisco and Maine are both amazing places! Agreed! But back in Maine now and the only thing I really miss is yoga...

    zmanPLAN - i'd be interested to hear about your "townsfolk" survey. what types of questions did you ask? how did you use the web (and what sites?) vs. local paper vs. standing/approaching on the street?

    After the business survey, I'll be polling residents & visitors to see what the downtown experience means for them - what the anchor is, what's secondary - and what else they could envision as complementing today's experience. Based on previous research I know that you just can't ask people to imagine / come up with ideas from nothing, so I'm wondering how other people have asked these questions.

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    Answers to Brockton's Questions

    Very good questions!

    Who are you surveying, business owners, customers, tourist, stakeholders, and/or local officials?

    Starting with business owners. Customers (residents and visitors) will come later. Stakeholder and local official perspective has been gathered through other sources.

    Do you or your community have an economic development staff person? They should have the business characteristics already on file. If you are the ED person then you should consider starting a retention program where you can learn about you local businesses and build trust. I have found that when I do these visits to a new company they are very guarded the first time few times through.


    I don't believe there is such a person, though there are independent business development groups. Will look into it. I am actually working for the Chamber of Commerce which has a good deal of this information on its MEMBERS, but not all businesses to be surveyed are members. Thanks for sharing your experience on company visits! We'll see what happens!

    Trying to get ideas for building entrepreneurs capacity is better accomplished through the local CDC, chamber or community college. When I have asked locals about entrepreneurial assistance all I get is the types of businesses they would like to see not the type of businesses they want to start or the help they need to start a business.

    Hhhhmmmm, interesting. So residents have told you what they'd like to see? We were thinking this information could be very valuable as press releases or one-pagers for local real estate agents to have about starting a business in Camden.

    Of course the golden ticket would be finding and questioning potential entrepreneurs - either in an early consideration phase or located out of downtown and interested in moving.

    Have you looked into becoming a member of the Main Street Program through the National Historic Trust? It is not a perfect program but it is a good resource for maintaining and increasing activity a downtown environment.

    The head of the Chamber of Commerce is seriously considering the Main Street program; I'm not sure where it stands but will continue to read about it.

    Before figuring out what survey method you want to use it is better to figure out who you are going to survey. Different methods are okay for different groups.

    We're dealing with mainly street-level retailers, restaurants and inns who are all small, local businesses. We were thinking of sweeping through town with a brief write-up of the survey (since it is highly unlikely the business owner would be present at that very moment) and either a) leaving a long form b) coming back to ask questions verbally or c) directing the business owner to an online form with the same questions. But so many questions to ask!

    Yes, ideas on how to elicit the "entrepreneurial opportunity" would be great!

  8. #8
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by maine2sf View post
    zmanPLAN - i'd be interested to hear about your "townsfolk" survey. what types of questions did you ask? how did you use the web (and what sites?) vs. local paper vs. standing/approaching on the street?
    Background:
    I work and live in a small town about an hour north of Denver. We are in the fastest growing county in Colorado and was listed as THE fastest growing city in the state at one point. This was all residential growth; however, and therefore we are seeking more economic development, you know, sales tax and job generators.

    Well, a couple years previous (when I was merely a resident and not an employee) the town sent a survey out to the residents asking what kinds of commercial businesses are needed. Included were also town amenities like municipal swimming pool, skate park etc.
    The survey consisted of choosing between a handful of commercial types/amenities and then had space for people to write in items (like "give us a Walmart Sam's Law in 8) or to provide comments. It was informative to the town and its economic development interests.
    As for the medium through which we obtain our information? We send out surveys through the mail with the water bill.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

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    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by zmanPLAN View post
    Could you elaborate on this? I know it is off-topic, you could PM me if you want.
    Already did. Actually, a retention program includes a survey of your local businesses, ussually on a yearly basis. The best way to keep a business in the community is to know what is going on with them and how you can help. When I worked in Michigan I saved 400 jobs by educating them on a few tax abatements they were not using. It meant the difference between closing shop and staying put for a few more years.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Since you want to survey business owners then face to face is the bestway IMO. Remeber these are business owners who have a business to run so try to keep the interview to under an hour if possible. You also want to make sure that the person answering your questions knows what they are talking about. The night manager at an inn might not have the best perpespective of how the business is going. Since you work for the chamber which is a well know known organization I doubt you will get little push back. I would send a letter explaining what you are gonig to do, follow up with a phoen call a two weeks later to schedule an appointment. This is time intensive but you will get more reliable results.

    If you cannot do that then figure out who you want to complete the surveys and drop them off in person. If you go the internet route you don't know who filled it out unless you assign user names and passwords or some other method to make sure no anyone and everyone fills out the form.

    Recently I tried a tall hall forum with local business owners. It did go well but it drew 10X more citizens than business owners. Since I am a local government employee I had to deal with the politics of such an event which reduced the effectiveness.

    The problem I have with everyone telling me what types of businesses they want to see is they are rarely grounded in the realm of reality. Target locates in towns with around 60k people not in towns with 8k. Jamba Juice and organic grocers look for a demographic that we do not have.

    Entrepreneurial opportunity can be generated within your community. Here is Maine's small business development center website: http://www.mainesbdc.org/ .SBDC are funded by teh federal government to encourage the formation of small businesses. The state chamber might also have resources as well as SCORE and your local community colleges and state universities. Even if the schools are not in your town they should be willing to help.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    I have found that the most useful surveys to answer these questions are "intercept surveys" conducted in the community's business district. They are called intercept surveys because the persons who are surveyed are actual visitors to the district. This can be done by having a survey-taker approach people and ask them the questions, or by having businesses provide a copy of the survey to their patrons. Think of all the times you have had Home Depot or your grocery store hand you a receipt with a web site and a code for you to enter to take a survey and enter a drawing. It is basically the same approach. A more low-tech version is simply a card to fill out and drop in a box. These surveys target the people who are actually visiting stores in the district.

    A second approach is a mail or similar survey sent to residents of the area. This will hit people who are not shopping in the district, and offers an opportunity to ask questions that get at the reasons they are not shopping there.

    Basic questions you should ask are what businesses they patronize in your target area, why they shop there (or do not), and where do they shop for a variety of goods. These will typically be things like groceries, hardware, pharmacy, clothing, etc. You should have some means of identifying where people are from. This could be as specific as aking for an address, or more general like a zip code.
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    Over the next two months our PC will be composing a survey focusing on our Main Street district (M&P shops, varied prof. services, churches, etc..), a planned municipal building (sits 1/2 block from main) and gateway projects associated with main street. Town has a pop. of 2,500 it's a former "stand alone" farming community that has become more of a bedroom community of the local metropolis (product of typical beltway growth in the 90's midwest cities).

    Our plan is to mail surveys to all residential addresses (including muti-family) and business/building owners within a certain target area, differentiating between the two just by colored card stock. Surveys will be sent by utilities dept. along with their monthly bills.

    As far as survey questions, I've had the best luck scavenging community surveys from municipalities and townships with pop. less than 50,000. I don't hesitate to call local village/city manger's or planners to ask if they would be willing to share. So far I had good luck, however, I have not come across a good "data center" for plugging in all the survey info. Survey examples from say out of state or large populated areas did not seem to give me good questions from which I could template from.

    If this type of survey sounds helpful, when completed, I can send a copy.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    Mechanics aside, what are you looking to learn from businesses in your district? The original post mentions wanting to know what drives vibrancy through learning more about the business mix, business characteristics and ideas for new businesses. You can create an inventory of businesses in the downtown and compare it to shopping centers and other comparable downtowns, especially other touristy Route 1 Maine towns, without conducting the survey. You can learn a lot from other places by evaluating their business clusters and linkages and get a lot of ideas you might want to test with a business survey.

    My sense is that Mainers shop in the local/regional shopping centers and the downtowns cater primarily to tourists, at least insofar as retail, restaurants and entertainment, which is like other coastal tourist towns I've come across. One problem we found when working in such a MA town was that the tourist season was so lucrative that some storefronts shut down in the off season, thereby reinforcing the sense that the downtown wasn't for residents and creating a pretty unexciting place in winter.

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