Larger retail stores weighed

The Harrisburg town council may vote to increase the town's retail square footage cap after a public hearing on May 9 at town hall.

The town planning board on April 19 recommended approval, 7-0, to increase the cap from 80,000 square feet to 135,000 square feet. The increased size could lure larger commercial developers and offset costs associated with the town's continued residential growth. Town council members supported initiating the change in the ordinance 6-1 about a month ago.

Josh Watkins, planning director for the town of Harrisburg, said the topic has been a hot-button issue at the forefront of the last two elections.

"If we increase it, we can try to bring back some potential retail developers who might have otherwise passed on Harrisburg," he said. "Ultimately, it's up to the town council ... but the current cap shuts the door on retail development. If we increase it, we can open the door and test the waters."

The cap increase is bound to grow eventually, especially because of Harrisburg's consistent growth the last 10 years, said Watkins. About 4,000 people lived in Harrisburg in 2000. The 2010 census numbers listed 11,500 residents.

Several years ago, the town council set the cap to prohibit "big box" development within the town, but now is looking to increase the cap to accommodate some larger retail outlets.

One possibility, even with the current cap, is a 40,000-square-foot Walmart prototype store being tested in certain markets, a smaller home improvement store or a smaller Target.

Residents have asked Watkins for restaurants like Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden and other large retailers that tend to follow each other, like Kohl's, which generally requires at least a 90,000-square-foot cap.

The previous caps were adequate in a good economy, but have since shifted and stunted retail growth, said Watkins.

"I know people want to keep Harrisburg a small town," said Watkins.

"Because they see areas like U.S. 29 in Concord and N.C. 49 in the university area, and they don't want to become that. They don't want to become a drive-through retail strip. They want to maintain small-town flavor.

"Large retail outlets can take out smaller business, but if we do it correctly with informed decisions, we can strike a balance that preserves the small-town feel while allowing residents to shop and keep their dollars in Harrisburg."

The benefit of these larger caps is the ability to bring in more tax revenue, said Watkins. A drawback could be spending more than expected on public safety and road improvements.

The economic development initiative has potential to offset a potential tax increase brought on by residential growth that outpaces commercial growth, said Watkins. For every dollar spent in residential growth, the town pays back about $1.25 in services. For every dollar spent in commercial development, the town pays back about 30 cents in services.

Local residential growth is at least twice as strong as commercial growth, with the town averaging about 15 houses per month being built.

A good target rate of growth is 70 percent residential to 30 percent commercial, said Watkins. Harrisburg is around 85 percent residential to 15 percent commercial.

The town already has approved several ordinance changes to improve architectural standards that would make bigger stores more aesthetically pleasing.

The town also has changed the ordinance approval process, allowing planning board and council members to be involved in the entire process.

If the cap increase isn't approved, Watkins said the topic likely will be revisited, or residents may see a tax increase.