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Economic development in a microcosm: A small town's pursuit of a grocer

Economic development in a microcosm: A small town's pursuit of a grocer

Small Town America is always a special place, whether it’s in the heartland or in my incredible hometown – just 30 miles away from the nation’s capital. As the “Mayor” (technically, Town Commission President) of Poolesville, Md., I can tell you there’s nothing like being part of a community where you know people by name, your neighbors have your back, and you value and support the businesses that make up the fabric of your town.

Jim Brown

Over the past five years, coming off the heels of the Great Recession, our Town Commission has been on a hard-driving mission to grow our economic base and attract businesses that will serve the needs of our residents and community members from surrounding areas.

The town has overhauled our commercial zoning and streamlined our permitting processes, in order to encourage businesses to invest in our downtown area. We’ve approved a new master plan that allows for incremental population growth (preserving our small town atmosphere is very important to all of us) and additional residential development, including four new neighborhoods planned or under construction.

Poolesville High School has earned the number-one ranking in the state for academics, attracting an influx of young families who are drawn to its tremendous success and the overall success of our school cluster. We’ve opened a spectacular commons area in the heart of town (including a well-utilized band shell) and host more than 30 community events a year. The town is one of the most “wired” in the country, with fiber optic Internet available to 98% of our residents. And we’ve welcomed a steady stream of new businesses to town, including two prominent national retailers in the past year.

Seemingly all of the pieces are falling in place for Poolesville’s complete economic revitalization. But one elusive piece of the puzzle remains missing. Back in 2011, after decades of successful operations, the one grocer in our town closed down – after struggling to recover from an ill-fated move to relocate into a new space and facing increased competition from new chain stores 10 miles away.

Today, the absence of a grocery store to serve our town’s 5,300 (and growing) residents – and thousands more in the surrounding rural area – is that proverbial “missing piece of the puzzle.” Finding a store that is the right fit for our community is, indeed, a challenge. But just as we have with other challenges, we’re more determined than ever to overcome this one.

So we’ll keep at it. We’ll keep targeting potential grocery store ownership groups and reinforce the many reasons why it’s a golden opportunity to locate in a thriving, suburban Maryland town, fully eight miles from the next closest competitor. We’ll tell them about the following facts:

• Poolesville has an average median household income of $135,000, among the highest in the nation.

• Data from a recently commissioned commercial development study shows a surplus “opportunity” gap of $10.2 million for businesses in the food and beverage industry.

• A survey finding from the same study indicates that 86% of our residents believe landing a grocery story is the town’s primary and remaining need, and that they would support and patronize a local store (which would also become our community gathering place!).

Successful economic development can take form in different shapes and sizes, large and small. In a competitive landscape, cities, counties, states and even nations compete to ensure their own economic stability and prosperity. For a small town like Poolesville, successful completion of the economic development puzzle may even take the form of a simple grocery store. And a welcome sign in the window that says: “We’re Open for Business.”

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