Retail Recruitment Strategies for South Carolina Cities: A Look at Florence with Bob Sager of the Florence Downtown Development Corp.

Mollee D. Harper

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

We met with Bob Sager, Retail Recruitment Consultant with the Florence Downtown Development Corporation. During our one-on-one, Sager highlights the ongoing revitalization efforts in downtown Florence and the role of recruiting retail businesses to fill the historic district. Sager provides details about the incentives in place for retailers who set up shop in Florence. In addition to the $30,000 grant already available, there's now a $20,000 purse for a retail competition winner.      

FDDC Snapshot

The Florence Downtown Development Corporation is a non-profit 501(c) 3 organization founded by the City of Florence, South Carolina in 2002. FDDC was established to foster revitalization of Downtown Florence, and is headquartered at 324 W. Evans Street in Florence. FDDC is a partnership with the City and is led by a 21-member Board of Directors elected to manage the corporation’s activities, affairs, property and associated assets.

Sager shared, “I met with Joe King, Executive Director of the Florence County Economic Development Partnership, who handles the development efforts in Florence. He’s done so much to keep Florence County a viable community over the years. He suggested I go to downtown Florence and attend an event to learn about the collaborative efforts of many people to build our city’s core. I was introduced to Ray Rich, who serves as the Downtown Development Manager. We started talking about his needs to recruit retail candidates to move into our downtown.”

“Nothing happens on your own. People make things happen. Once I saw the opportunity and challenge, and the potential for building, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”

Sager offered, “Having a deep background in retail, I was really excited and put together a proposal to Tim Norwood, Chairman of the Florence Downtown Development Corporation about how we can recruit and bring in the best retailers to our downtown, which led to my current role as Retail Recruitment Consultant for the Florence Downtown Development Corporation since February 2017.”

“As a first step, I have been getting to know the existing vendors so we can understand where the voids are. For example, we have 12 beauty salons, so we don’t need to recruit more. I also went around and met everyone in the historic district and put together target markets. I visited Georgetown, Aiken, Columbia, Hartsville, Myrtle Beach, and other surrounding cities to help identify the most appealing retailers.”

He continued, “I came from big retail environment and didn’t know a lot about specialty stores and boutique retailers. We identified a lot of great targets in both for our area. I built a master list of all the different businesses we have talked to with follow up work based on their current lease expirations and other factors in order to help create interest in setting up shop here.”

“I have to give Ray Rich a lot of credit. He did this in Sumter. And, he along with Tim Norwood, Chairman of the Florence Downtown Development Corporation, have a great partnership that has made the biggest difference in the downtown development in Florence over the last five years. There has been a lot of progress as a result of the foundation they have laid. Some of the people I’ve met with have leases, or are family businesses, so convincing them to relocate or expand to our area can take some time. We are planting the seeds and diligently working each lead, and have identified some great retailers we want to bring to our area.”

Sager added, “For people who don’t know about us, we want to paint a picture of downtown Florence and all it has to offer and provide great incentives to retailers who want to set up shop here.”

“Part of my mission is to attract young people here. I am talking to a comic book store right now, and other unique stores that will appeal to our younger residents. We have gone after some of the regional retailers because their names are well known. They are tougher to get, but we do have some interest and want to get some of these recognizable names in our area.” 

Retail Competition 

Sager continued “Our main focus right now is the 2017 Full Forward Downtown Florence competition for existing retail businesses. We have a great incentive program in place already. The icing is the $20,000 cash that comes with this competition. We hope to have a great winner, but also hope to draw in others who will help us build in the future.”

“The contest is a spin-off of a startup model that has been used in other cities like Hartesville which is a great example. Their downtown is now full; they don’t have any vacancies or open spaces.”

“Any existing retailer can participate in the contest. They fill out an online survey. From that group, our committee will select finalists who will be invited to present a business plan to us. From that group, we will select our winner. The committee will be made up of representatives from our small business community, Chamber of Commerce as well as local professionals.”

Sager noted, “Right now we have eight spaces that can be ready in our historic district for participating retailers in 2017. The size of these spaces varies from 1,000 sq ft to 13,000 sq ft. We have two very large spaces that we would love to fill, ideal for a large furniture store or a larger retailer.”

“The winner will be announced by August 7, 2017 and will receive $30,000 in grant money along with the $20,000 purse. The requirements for our winning retailer are that they sign a lease and be ready to move in to the historic district in downtown Florence by November 1, 2017.”

Downtown Florence

Downtown Florence has been recognized as one of the fastest growing downtown districts in the southeast, and is maintaining its pace with another track year of record growth planned for 2017.

Sager shared, “The private investment here in downtown Florence is huge. This whole renovation and revitalization started 20 years ago. While it’s been a long journey, people can really see the progress and potential.”

“There has been over 130 million dollars in public and private investment in downtown Florence in the recent years. There is going to be 84 million dollars invested here in the next year alone.”

“The Raines Group breaks ground on their new Hyatt Place Hotel with 103 rooms on the corner of East Evans and South Dargan Streets this June and will be opened for business by mid 2018. We’ve got a new apartment building called the Emerson Place with parking garage downtown, and it’s now full. We are working on more living space down here. Ten new restaurants have opened in the past five years and more are planned for 2017,” he said.

“One of the things that has happened here is that we have really transformed our downtown area into a great space for social events. We have had some of the most successful downtown events including annual festivals. The Pecan Festival alone draws in 50,000 people to downtown Florence each year. We also have social events including a monthly Friday street party with live bands, music and libations called Florence After Five, plus weekly individual sponsored events. Our downtown area has really developed into the cool place people want to hang out and be.” 

Sager concluded, “We aren’t here just to fill storefronts, we want people who can come here to Florence, make a home here, and be successful. We are working hard as a community to ensure success for people who move here.” 

Bob Sager serves the Retail Business Recruiting Consultant for Florence Downtown Development Corporation. His primary focus is to recruit retail businesses to the Downtown Florence H1 Development District. Sager has an extensive background in retail, starting his career with the Federated Department Stores, now Macy’s. Sager has served in Merchandising and as a District Store Manager with Bon Ton. Prior to his current role, Sager served as General Manager for Belks at the Magnolia Mall for 9 years. Sager received his formal education in Business Administration and Management from Xavier University. 

Reach Bob at bob@florencedowntown.com