Revitalizing downtown Oxford
By Steven Hoffman
Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. (OMI) will have a busy year in 2019, and no time is being wasted on starting that work: On Tuesday, Jan. 15, the organization is planning a downtown Oxford Open House to showcase the commercial properties that are currently available to potential investors. This is one of many activities that OMI has planned throughout the year, all of them aimed at benefiting Oxford Borough.
At the Dec. 17 Oxford Borough Council meeting, Brian Wenzka, the executive director of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc., made a presentation highlighting the organization's ongoing efforts to help revitalize the downtown.
He began by highlighting some of the more recent accomplishments in downtown Oxford.
The borough has added 35 new businesses in the downtown since 2012. OMI is also regularly receiving a lot more calls from investors and business owners asking about available spaces in the downtown. This year, Oxford hosted the Connective Festival, a new event that attracted thousands of people for a day-long celebration of music and art. The Country Christmas celebration and the borough's other First Friday events have been growing in popularity for years.
OMI has played a pivotal role in all the aforementioned achievements.
In preparation for the report to borough council, Wenzka said, he reached out to borough officials to see if there was any specific information that they wanted him to include. He heard from several different people that they wanted information about the return on investment that Oxford Borough receives for its annual contribution to OMI.
Wenzka said that the return on investment is significant. The work of the OMI staff amounts to about
a $114,000 return as a result of the efforts to market the downtown as a destination, support local businesses, and plan special events. Boosting economic development and working with potential investors to fill the storefronts in the commercial district is a major part of OMI's mission. The organization's staff also works with the borough to secure grant funding for infrastucture improvements and streetscape projects. OMI takes the lead in planning the Connective Festival and First Friday events. The staff also takes care of downtown beautification efforts, including landscaping and trash removal in the business district.
Those are the efforts by OMI that can be quantified with an estimated dollar value. There's no way to quantify the impact of other initiatives. For example, the Connective Festival attracted visitors from throughout the region, and it's hard to estimate the benefits that the borough might see as a result. Did a family come to town for the Connective Festival and decide that they wanted to move to a community that is so supportive of music and the arts? Did a person visit during Country Christmas and decide that he or she wanted to open a shop in the charming downtown, with all the friendly store owners? It's difficult to measure the full impact that organizations like OMI and the Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce have on the community.
The borough contributes $15,500 annually to OMI. Borough manager Brian Hoover agreed with Wenzka's assessment that the borough would need to pay much more than that for the various services that OMI provides. He pointed out that it would likely be necessary to hire a manager to plan the First Friday events and other activities in the downtown. The borough would also need additional staff to handle economic development activities that the borough manager doesn't have time to handle. The beautification work would also need to be turned over to a borough employee, which means that something else wouldn't be getting done. Hoover said that investing in OMI helps save the borough taxpayers' money.
“There are a lot of things [that OMI does] that we don't have to pay for because they are doing them,” Hoover said.
Since OMI was founded, one of the most fundamental duties has been to attract new businesses to the downtown. With 35 new businesses since 2012, the borough is averaging about six new businesses each year. Fewer than 10 percent of the storefronts in the downtown are vacant, and whenever a vacancy opens up there is usually interest in it from a prospective business owner fairly quickly.
Wenzka noted that at various times in the last 30 or 40 years, the downtown has suffered from high vacancy rates, but now the downtown is thriving and vibrant. OMI has helped play a part in the transformation.
“This didn't happen by accident,” Wenzka said. “It happened because of foresight. It happened because of planning. It happened because of investment.”
While many of the storefronts are already filled, Wenzka explained that property owners are now focusing on filling the second floors and third floors of buildings in the business district. Fully utilizing the buildings will help strengthen the downtown by boosting revenues and increasing foot traffic.
And because there is increased interest in the available properties downtown, there is an ongoing effort to attract new investors.
OMI is planning a downtown open house on Tuesday, Jan. 15 to showcase properties that are currently available, including the spaces on the upper floors of buildings.
“We're thinking that that is going to be a great event,” Wenzka said.
Oxford Borough Mayor Lorraine Bell grew up in Oxford and can remember a time before OMI existed when numerous storefronts in the downtown were vacant. She said that OMI plays an important role in helping keep the borough revitalized, and the annual contribution that the borough makes to the organization is well worth it.
“For what they do, we're getting huge bang for the buck,” Bell said. “They make Oxford a place where people want to come.”
A big part of making Oxford a place where people want to come are the community events that help attract visitors to the downtown to shop in the stores and eat in the restaurants.
Wenzka said that the Connective Festival takes a tremendous investment, both in terms of costs for marketing and planning the event and in hours that the staff works on the event, but they are very enthusiastic that the second Connective Festival on Aug. 3, 2019 will be bigger and better than the first one.
“We feel it's a worthwhile investment to continue to put Oxford on the map on a regional basis,” Wenzka said of the festival.
Council member Ron Hershey also pointed out that OMI is a valuable partner to the borough for initiatives like seeking grant funding for infrastructure improvements. The partnership has helped the borough secure several thousand dollars in grants over the years, contributing to the revitalization efforts.
Wenzka said that all the various activities of OMI contribute to strengthening the business district. The business district, in turn, has an oversized impact on the borough's overall health because of the revenues that are generated as a result of commercial activity.
“The bottom line is, the stronger the commercial district is, the healthier the borough is,” Wenzka said.