Editorial: The puzzle of fitting new businesses with our need
Op-Ed · August 15, 2013

How nice it would be if entrepreneurs walked into the offices of Main Street West Branch and said, “I’m looking to start a business. What does this city need?”

If that worked, we probably would not need MSWB. The business needs of the community would be met, the city and schools would maximize tax income, and our small city would soon be on its way to becoming a large city.

However, a report presented last month by Main Street Iowa took a broad look at how much money people in West Branch make, how people on average spend money, and how much is and is not spent in local businesses.

The big number is $16 million. That’s how much money city residents spend in other cities. Some of that will always be spent elsewhere because people travel, but a look at the smaller numbers teaches us quite a bit.

For example, between the city’s one grocery store and three gas stations, their combined sales makes up only about 25 percent of what 2,400 residents typically spend on groceries.

What makes this even more problematic is that two of those gas stations are selling groceries — perhaps just a gallon of milk or loaf of bread at a time — to non-residents who chose to stop here to buy gas. Of course that revenue is welcome, but it means that an even smaller percentage of West Branch residents are spending grocery money in town.

On the positive side, the city’s handful of restaurants captures about half — $1 million out of about $2 million — of what residents spend on eating out. But that does not come close to making up for what we lose in grocery sales taxes.

Jim Thompson, who presented the report on July 10, said West Branch obviously benefits from a close proximity to Iowa City and Coralville. However, much of that is more earned than circumstantial.

“You work where you have to,” he said. “You live where you want to. And people want to live here.”

That becomes more evident when one sees all the houses cropping up in Meadows and Pedersen Valley. Yes, contractors are building homes because they hope to sell them. And it turns out that, indeed, people want to buy.

Thompson said that is not surprising: The numbers say so.

“You need housing,” he said.

So we’ve got folks stepping up to meet the need in housing, and restaurants are doing pretty well. But retail, especially general merchandise, like all those things parents bought from school supply lists, is where we need to go out and find businesses that will provide that here.

It is not easy.

We would guess that city residents are quite accustomed to traveling out of town for those things, so opening a new retail outlet here will necessitate an emphasis on advertising to get people to change spending habits.

But if it can be done, our city will benefit.

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