With an increase in business established in the area in recent years, the biggest challenge facing new business in Dothan is immediately available space.
“Right now, knock on wood, we’re full,” Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Parker said. “Our biggest challenge we’re facing right now is product, i.e., available buildings. We’ve still got some sites, but we could still use more.”
The city of Dothan collected around $500 thousand more in taxes in October 2019 than it had in October 2018 , and the unemployment rate is at a record low 2.4% in Houston County.
“We are able to directly see the success of businesses in the community through sales tax revenues, so that’s been up significantly for some time,” City Manager Kevin Cowper said. “A large part of that is due to the economy; we feel like we’re creating a business-friendly environment. We’ve got a great community; retailers want to be here and we want to encourage people to stay right here in Dothan and get out and enjoy themselves in this community.”
Record-low unemployment rates are also evidence of a thriving local economy.
“Every economy goes through cycles,” Parker said. “What we’ve seen is really positive movement in the market in the last five to seven years. Manufacturing industries have a multiplier effect on manufacturing jobs, and that really stimulates small business growth.”
Dothan’s role as a regional hub for health care and commerce makes the city a destination, while pass-through traffic brings customers who help fill the coffers of local shops and restaurants.
In fact, Steve Turkoski, the chamber’s workforce development director, said that Houston County has the highest retail sales per capita in the state per year. While Alabama is marginally less than the national average of $15,000 spent per capita, in Houston County around $30,000 per capita is spent.
Its geography and affordability, as Allison Sconyers with Denim Resellers points out, make it a prime location for entrepreneurs to take the leap.
“Dothan’s probably one of the more entrepreneurial communities I’ve seen. They have a vision; they can put it together and create an economy. That’s what makes Dothan unique,” Parker said. “Maybe we don’t have all the super highway, interstate systems, but we have a lot of good things that provide diversity and natural resources that really cultivate new business.”
Dothan is investing resources into breaking down walls and lowering hurdles for new and established businesses in partnership with the chamber and the Dothan Downtown Redevelopment Authority.
The city commission is helping the DDRA by funding its aggressive acquisition of abandoned and rundown properties to revitalize businesses in the downtown area.
Most recently, the DDRA has agreed to ask the commission for help in purchasing a property by “the hump,” a key property in its mission, on South Oates Street.
Sconyers said the revitalization of nearby properties would also help the prospect for her business, located next door, as they have been severely neglected.
DDRA President Pat Thomas said the first goal would be to clean up, secure and beautify the properties.
The city of Dothan’s commission funds the DDRA and helps provide incentives for business opportunities inside Dothan’s Ross Clark Circle.
“We have a lot of properties that are underutilized. They may be vacant; some properties are abandoned. That gives a poor presentation, image for our community, and so we want to do everything we can to encourage redevelopment of those properties,” Cowper said.
The city has helped pass regulations such as the Sunday brunch bill, which allows restaurants to sell alcohol at 10 a.m. now, a performance-based sales tax rebate program, and commercial development incentive program.
DDRA Executive Director Jamie Bienvenu said city backing and regulations, like the sidewalk café ordinance, are helping.
“We are seeing an influx of new businesses opening in downtown,” Bienvenu said. “There’s some city skin in the game now to help those businesses, to incentivize those businesses to come downtown or relocate or open a new business down here.”
Regulations such as the sidewalk café ordinance the city has recently passed could have long-standing implications for businesses that locate downtown.
“Our program is to create a vision, improve the infrastructure in those areas and provide whatever economic or regulatory incentives are needed to facilitate new businesses occupying those properties,” Cowper said.
While community leaders are working to carve out attractive space for businesses, there are many city-related entities that are helping entrepreneurs with the financial component, often the most difficult part about opening a new business. Organizations associated with the city help create practical solutions for the city to give businesses that leg up such as free counseling, a small business tool kit, revolving loan funds, a microloan program, and affordable office space at the Mixson Business Center.
“Nothing happens unless you can put money on the table. It positions the project to success,” Parker said.
Sconyers said there is more the city could do to help businesses like hers, which recently opened downtown in November, like reducing restrictions that may allow her business to gain more roadside visibility.
Executive Director of the chamber Dean Mitchell said that Dothan is a prime spot to open a new business, and while resources to help are available, entrepreneurs need a plan that can be profitable and sustainable.
“You’ve got to have a plan and make sure that it works,” Mitchell said. “Can you execute it and make it work for you and can it be positive?”