Austin retail scene is picking up steam

Published 7:03am Sunday, June 1, 2014
Manager Everett Hackensmith poses in Runnings during the first week the store was open. The addition of Runnings to Austin has been part of an upward trend of more businesses coming to town. Herald file photo
Manager Everett Hackensmith poses in Runnings during the first week the store was open. The addition of Runnings to Austin has been part of an upward trend of more businesses coming to town. Herald file photo

A Hayfield resident recently told Runnings manager Everett Hackensmith that he chose to shop in Austin over Rochester because he can now buy farming products at Runnings.

Stories like that have business leaders excited not only about Runnings but also about Austin’s retail community.

To business people, Runnings is a great addition to Austin because it sells things that people had been going out of town to buy: Firearms, farm equipment, sporting equipment, etc.

“They were going elsewhere and now these things are offered here in Austin,” Hackensmith said.

Business leaders have long fought the problem of retail leakage — Austin dollars being spent in other communities. A prime reason people shop outside town is to seek products not available in Austin, but Austin Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandy Forstner hopes Runnings will help keep people in town by filling retail product gaps.

“That’s why Runnings is such a big deal,”  Forstner said.

Those items keep  people in town and bring people to town, as Hackensmith recalled two people in Runnings from Albert Lea last Thursday. People like that commonly stop at other stores.

“Hopefully they’re taking advantage of everything else Austin has to offer after they leave here,” he said.

Along with Runnings, Hy-Vee manager Todd Hepler said he’s seen many good things going on around 18th Avenue Northwest.

“Right now we’re seeing an explosion of new businesses,” Hepler said.

Hackensmith agreed.

There was recently some bad news, as Staples closed in mid-May.

But the last few years have seen the new AT&T store, Jimmy John’s, Sassy Strawberry and Hy-Vee Gas/Caribou Coffee all expand what 18th Avenue has to offer.

“There are a lot more offerings up and down 18th Avenue than there were say four or five years ago,” Hackensmith said.

Other businesses are coming in, like apparel store Hibbett Sports which is building a 4,000-square-foot store set to open this fall. Jennifer Jenkins has opened Total Fitness, a 6,100-square-foot gym at 803 18th Ave. NW.

‘The trend is up’

Overall, Forstner said he’s seeing positive things in Austin’s retail and business community.

Bruce Schwartau, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, recently presented 2012 retail numbers to Austin city leaders, but the numbers were tainted by what he perceived as a mistake. Overall, he saw Austin’s retail number holding steady or improving slightly.

“The consistent part of it is that the trend is up — that’s undeniable,” Forstner said of the report.

While the numbers may be skewed in some areas, Forstner found many strong and underperforming retail sections in Austin. Areas like food/groceries, amusement and recreation, health/personal stores and accommodations were strong.

“We certainly have some strengths to build on,” Forstner said.

However, general merchandise, furniture, vehicles and parts, and building materials were weaker.

“We still have a ways to go,” Forstner said.

Cities like Austin, Northfield and Faribault face a geographical challenge: They’re close to other cities that attract shoppers. For Austin, Rochester is to the east, Albert Lea to the west and Owatonna is to the north. This limits the reach and creates competition for the pool of out-of-town shoppers.

While a city like Albert Lea is smaller in population, it has less competition when it comes to attracting shoppers, especially south and west of town.

“There’s virtually no competition from any other retail centers for a long ways,” Forstner said of Albert Lea.

Even with Buy Mower/Grow Mower — a program Forstner said has been successful in promoting local sales — some business will always go out of town for a variety of factors.

“We all shop out of town, there’s no question about it. It’s a question of how often and for what,” Forstner said.

People often debate the “Walmart Effect,” but Forstner said the business has been a positive for Austin, noting that it’s brought jobs and business have opened around the store on 18th Avenue.

“I believe Walmart has had a very positive effect on Austin,” he said.

Forstner said Walmart is what it is for a reason.

“They’re No. 1 because people shop there,” he said, noting people would go out of town to shop there.

He also said the store represents a shift a number of years ago from Main Street businesses to big box stores on the edge of town.

A strong community

Development Corporation of Austin Executive Director John Garry said he’s also seen many positive signs, with strong employment numbers, low unemployment and steady growth at businesses like Hormel Foods Corp.

He also referenced a 2013 Grow Minnesota Study in which 80 percent of local businesses polled anticipated they’d add jobs or remain stable.

“We’re an economically strong rural community,” he said.

Part of the recent improvement has been economic as the recession has eased, but Forstner noted Mother Nature hasn’t been kind this year. Each season has economic drivers. The late winter kept spring shopping at bay as wet, wintry weather persisted into spring.

“Weather still matters,” Forstner said.

Along with Hibbett, there are other positive signs for the future. Business leaders said The Hormel Institute expansion will be a boom for Austin, as will the Spam Museum’s 2016 move downtown. Hepler said excitement is also building for Hy-Vee’s $11 million remodel and expansion, which is set to start around the Monday after the Fourth of July.

“With all the excitement that we have going on, I think you’re going to see 2014 and 2015 be incredible years for the community of Austin,” Hepler said.

With Hibbett already building its new building and other businesses primed to open, Hackensmith agreed the future is bright.

“There’s definitely some optimism and I think a bright future out here with everyone willing to take a chance,” he said.

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