Chamber, Planning Commission discuss island economics
The Jamestown Chamber of Commerce joined the Planning Commission for a strategy session regarding economic development in Jamestown. Attention focused on the tension between the small town’s rural character and the essential customer traffic necessary to create a healthy business environment. The two groups last met in June 2006.
A March meeting of Town Planner Lisa Bryer and the chamber resulted in the call for this special session. Among those present from the chamber were Charlie Petit, Kristine Trocki, Robert Horne, Evan Smith, Treasurer Debbie Goyette, Vice President Cathryn Jamieson and Executive Director Arlene Petit. Several business owners were also present.
Bryer structured the conversation around a series of questions that the chamber was given in advance. After describing the several types of businesses in Jamestown, including homebased businesses, marine-related business and the retail shops and restaurants of the Narragansett Commercial District, the group explored issues around homebased businesses. Charlie Petit said that home-based businesses in Jamestown are afraid to report themselves and are not members of the chamber.
Planning Commission Chairman Mike Swistak added that vacation rentals by homeowners is also a form of home-based business and the “collective gross” may be higher than some businesses in town. When asked, Bryer reminded the group that the definition of a home-based business includes “200-square feet, one employee and one sign of a certain size.” It was agreed that home-based businesses are spread throughout the island and that the information about most of them is gleaned from tax records.
Next the workshop attendees listed “Jamestown’s assets related to business.” The list was comprehensive and included the natural beauty of the island setting, the waterfront, the arts community, the library, the playground, the museums, and the sense of community. The list also included the town’s history and its working farms, various churches, easy accessibility, safety, and “excellent schools.”
During a particularly rapid exchange of questions and answers, commission member Duncan Pendlebury asked how much of Jamestown’s core businesses (excluding home-based business) depend on visitors from out of town for business. The gathering mulled the question while commission member Mike Smith asked another, “What has replaced Jamestown distributors as the big draw for off-island consumers.”
The collective response was immediate and included restaurants, boat yards, the golf course, campgrounds and state parks.
Back to assets, chamber member Trocki, an attorney in town, said that for her the largest asset of the town is its people and the camaraderie within the community. Bill Munger, co-owner of Conanicut Marine Services, named Jamestown’s four boat yards, which employs more than 100 people, as a major asset. He explained that collectively the yards have mooring and dock space for 450 boats for which 30 percent of the owners make their home off the island. The boat yards, Munger added, are “one of Jamestown’s strongest economic engines.”
He described the “spin-off” of people who work on or use their boats, then use the hardware store, go to a restaurant, or drop by one of the other shops in the village.
Some discussion focused on making Jamestown a restaurant destination or a get-away destination.
Concern regarding too few accommodations for overnight guests was also expressed. Next the group considered “the obstacles or threats related to business success.”
Included in the discussion was what Arlene Petit, former town clerk, and others called the “perceived parking problem.” Echoing the sentiment that the town has a walking problem not a parking problem, commission member Dick Lynn said, “It would be a short walk in Boston,” referring to parking spots west of the Fire Station and their proximity to the shopping district.
There was some agreement that narrow roads are made narrower by delivery trucks, two cars parked, two passing, and the occasional bicycle.
Munger spoke in favor of golf carts displacing cars in the village. That idea encouraged a discussion of mopeds and the current condition of island roads, the downtown’s recent sidewalk and road refurbishment that’s excepted.
A moment was taken to express thanks to Bryer for the sidewalk improvements made on Narragansett Avenue, including the bike racks and street lamps. Bryer was in turn quick to thank the business owners for their patience.
Other obstacles included higher real estate values than neighboring towns, which Evan Smith, who is the president and CEO of the Newport and Bristol County Convention Visitors Bureau, suggested be listed on both the assets and obstacle list. Swistak named the commercial water rates which require highwater use business to consider carefully landing in Jamestown.
The psychology of the parking discussion was summed up by Pendlebury, who said, “If you aren’t making money from the traffic, you don’t like it.” Arlene Petit suggested that a “lack of community support for tourism” appears to exist. It was clear in the discussion that a push-pull relationship lives between the desire of islanders to maintain a small town feel and of businesses that serve islanders needing non-residents to survive and thrive. While the total population of 6,000 was tossed about as a customer base, Pendlebury reminded the gathering that a better number is 2,800 households. Pendlebury, reflecting what he had been hearing, stated unequivocally, “We need off-islanders, period.”
Raised as part of the “current issues” question, Swistak pointed out that while island business owners count on islanders as some significant portion of their customer base, Jamestowners most often work off island and are faced with a myriad of choices on the ride to and from home. Smith concurred, saying that downtown stores, whether they are located in Portsmouth, Jamestown or Newport, are facing competition from big-box stores and online purveyors.
Other issues facing business owners in Jamestown include rising rents, a small customer base, and slow moving or stagnant commercial property values that have not kept up with residential values, according to Mike Smith.
In addressing the question of whether or not our concern for local businesses should be focused on retention, expansion or recruitment, there was some agreement that recruitment of businesses that are simply looking for a good place to locate but are not necessarily serving Jamestowners would be of value. More importantly, however, is the belief that retention is the area in which the greatest energy and effort should be placed.
Regarding additional businesses, Munger said, “We are satisfied with what’s here. It’s all working well but it’s extremely fragile.” Bryer emphasized the positive position of the chamber because they are already organized and in that way are prepared to address the needs of the business owners in town. She asked the chamber members present what the Planning Commission could provide business owners with going forward. She suggested that an Economic Development Council could be formulated with the Town Council’s approval. Swistak echoed Bryer’s question asking specifically if there were any policies, procedures, fees or taxes that could be tweaked or changed.
Commercial water rates and mooring fees were immediate answers. However, the general consensus appeared to be that meetings such as this one, held more regularly, would serve to move the issues forward and create the progress necessary to create a sustainable and healthy business environment in Jamestown.