Energizing a sluggish town center

Best-of-kind businesses are being enticed to a new Main Street in Habersham, South Carolina, that had previously failed to catch on.

Despite the worst economy in decades, developer Robert Turner this year has infused new life into the town center of Habersham, a 282-acre traditional neighborhood development in Beaufort County, South Carolina. Habersham’s progress indicates how a poorly performing center can in many cases be reenergized — by attracting the right kinds of businesses and activities.

The town center, three blocks of Main Street built between 2003 and 2007, had never matched the success achieved by Habersham’s residential areas.

Roughly 500 dwellings, including townhouses, flats, and detached houses, have been built and sold in Habersham as a whole, and Turner says “we’ve probably sold another 275 lots that are going to be built on.” But while residential areas flourished, the three-story buildings on Main Street — laid out to accommodate businesses on the ground floor and living quarters above — failed to attain much vitality. Of the first-floor spaces, Turner says, “Some of them were leased up, but they weren’t really what we wanted.”

There were lawyers, builders’ offices, a dentist, a financial firm, a window blind supplier, a cabinet retailer, a hair salon, a gift shop — and not many eating and drinking establishments, or much excitement. Commercial space, says Turner, “was 60 to 70 percent occupied. We just didn’t have the right tenants to create a destination.” Habersham’s location, in a suburban-rural part of the county lacking much traffic, added to the challenge. The town center sits about 1,500 feet from the closest primary road.

Consequently, last November Turner commissioned the Montreal-based consulting firm Live Work Learn Play (LWLP) for a comprehensive initiative aimed at making the town center a place where not just Habersham residents but people from throughout the region would enjoy spending time and money.

“It is the classic turnaround project,” says Max Reim, principal of LWLP. “Habersham was originally planned in 1996, and you learn a lot in 13 years.” The center’s urban form was fundamentally sound, in Reim’s judgment, but the idea of who would use the center, and why, needed to change.

“Habersham shouldn’t be a town center,” Reim concluded. “It should be a destination marketplace. It should be complementary to everything going on in Beaufort County.”

LWLP examined just about every aspect of the town center — who its current and potential users are; how its buildings and outdoor spaces function; how the center is promoted; what events and rituals take place there; and how to make sure that the “Habersham Marketplace” becomes, in Reim’s phrase, “an imprinted aspect of people’s lives.”

After three months of preliminary work, LWLP staff member Ryan Bloom was dispatched from Montreal to live and work in Habersham. Such on-site assignment are routinely employed by the company in new urban projects (see Sept. 2008 New Urban News).

Bloom has become a constant presence, listening to residents and merchants and offering suggestions about how to make the businesses more appealing. “He’s always around the town,” Nancy Beaupre, a Habersham merchant, says of Bloom.

LWLP helped identify categories of businesses that would impel people to drive 30 to 45 minutes or more from Hilton Head, Charleston, and elsewhere. Once the town center has been refashioned, Reim anticipates more than 30 percent of the spending will come from people who don’t live in Habersham.

Key commercial
Businesses identified as essential to a thriving Habersham center include:

• An excellent coffee purveyor. “In our survey work, the Number 1 experience that people said they wanted was a great place to get coffee,” Bloom notes.

• A French bistro. “We’re heavily focused now on bringing in quality food and beverage,” Bloom says. “It will drive the foot traffic, and that benefits other operators.

• A pub where people like to spend time. “People will drive farther for a restaurant or a pub than for most other things,” Bloom observes.

• A good pizzeria (harder to find in South Carolina than in Northern cities). Pizza “brings families together,” Bloom says.

• A boutique fitness center willing to help organize physical activities not only inside its building but out in the town.

Businesses that intensively interact with people can establish a center’s identity and encourage return visits. A chief goal, Reim says, is to “put in place weekly, monthly, and annual activities” that bring the center to life.
By late September, Bloom signed up eight new businesses consistent with that mission. Their operators came in some instances from within the ranks of existing Habersham residents. In other instances, they moved to Habersham from a long way off. The goal, as explained by Rob Spanier, who handles business development at LWLP, is to attract the best operators in a given category, whatever their origin.

Ian Hart moved from New York City to start a fitness center called EarthFit in a 700 sq. ft. space in Habersham. After three months of operation, he and his chief program facilitator, Bojan Mladenovic, expanded the enterprise into another 1,400 sq. ft. space while keeping the original space for studio-type classes such as yoga and mat Pilates.

Parks a plus for fitness center
EarthFit uses the outdoor areas of Habersham for running, tennis, and other activities, helping to energize the community. “A typical gym in a strip mall can’t use green spaces in a park,” Bloom notes, whereas a fitness center in a place like Habersham can make the most of the community’s assets. “We’re currently training the Beaufort High School tennis team,” Hart points out.

Hart, who commuted by train and subway while working in New York, now lives above the gym, and likes it. The proximity, he says, is a boon in a business that may start at 5:30 in the morning and continue to 9 o’clock at night.

“Fifty percent of the people we’ve done deals with have moved to Habersham,” Bloom emphasizes. “It’s just a magnificent place to live, so it doesn’t take a lot of coercion to get them to move here.”

Beaupre had operated a large bookstore for children more than 20 years ago, when she and her husband lived in Michigan. She talked with Bloom about establishing a children’s bookstore in Habersham — it would be the only one in the South Carolina Lowcountry — and he encouraged her to “start in a smaller space, so it feels like it’s full of things.” That turned out to be good advice.

He also suggested she put a few interesting things outside, in front of the store: an antique table with the ABC’s on it, and a couple of worn little school chairs painted a bright color. “People know I’m open when they see the table and chairs out there,” Beaupre says.

LWLP prides itself on patiently getting to know potential merchants, restaurateurs, and service operators and finding those who possess energy, knowledge, and skill. For example, Beaupre,  who has owned a townhouse in Habersham for four years, not only operated a children’s bookstore in the past but also studied child development at Michigan State University.

Other businesses that have opened in Habersham include Pattoi Bistro, whose executive chef lives above the restaurant; “M” Design & Interiors, the second store of an award-winning team of interior designers; and the Elena Madden Gallery, whose youth painting classes reflect LWLP’s concept of “interactive retail.”

A small village square has been established on Main Street where farmers and makers of handcrafted items sell their goods each Friday. Periodic events such as foot races and a harvest festival further help to attract people on a regular basis.

“The challenge of traditional neighborhood development has been retail,” Turner says. Most TND developers “focus on selling lots and houses,” he says, and are not good at attracting and nurturing the “very customized retail” that can make a new urban center take off. “We were not proactive in creating a comprehensive plan for the retail portion,” despite being successful in selling the buildings, he says. Thus the need for a firm that could conceptualize and implement a dynamic vision of a town center.

Turner is encouraged as he looks to his next challenge: developing an additional 147 acres he’s acquired, part of which will have commercial development extending the existing center.

Leslie Pickel, who worked in Florida for the Seaside Institute for 10 years before moving to Habersham in 2007, says business operators are excited by what’s been accomplished. “They’ve brought in successful, time-tested restaurants and merchants,” Pickel says. “By no means are we definitely there,” she says, but “people are starting to be involved in daily rituals of things to do.”

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