City rehires economic development consultant

McAlester city councilors decided by a 4-to-1 vote to rehire an economic development consultant for another year at more than double his current rate of pay — but only after some pointed questions from several councilmen as to whether the city is getting its money’s worth.

The city council originally contracted with Retail Attractions last April for a 12-month period, with an emphasis on working to attract retail businesses and restaurants to McAlester. City councilors agreed in 2014 to pay $1,000 per month, for a $12,000 total. With the original contract now set to expire April 30, McAlester Community and Economic Development Director Leroy Alsup proposed hiring Retail Attractions for another 14 months, at a cost of $2,500 per month, bringing the total to $35,000.

Retail Attractions’ new $35,000 contract runs from May 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016.

Alsup and Retail Attractions CEO Rickey Hayes both made personal pitches to extend the contract during the city council’s regular Tuesday night meeting in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

“The first contract was scaled-down — $1,000 per month for the entire 12-month arrangement,” Alsup said.

When asked about the increase from $1,000 to $2,500 per month in pay, Alsup said the initial $1,000 per month fee had been at the reduced rate on a trial basis. He considered the $1,000 a month trial period successful, Alsup said. Now, it’s time to go to the $2,500 regular rate.

During the first year, Hayes made himself available for consultations through conference calls and site visits to McAlester in excess of what was contractually required by the “scaled-down contract,” Alsup said. He also referred to the preparation of a Gap Analysis, to show any retail “leakage” McAlester loses when shoppers go to other cities to spend their money.

That’s not only useful in showing new retail prospects where there is a need. It can also prove useful to existing businesses in McAlester, he said.

City Manager Pete Stasiak interjected that it can take from 18-to-36 months to develop some retail projects. While he said it’s too soon to publicly identify the prospects, Stasiak said one of the largest projects is “about 70 percent along.” He said Hayes saved the city thousands of dollars when one potential prospect asked for a large incentive. Hayes told the city an incentive of that type is not permitted, according to Stasiak.

While Alsup didn’t identify any new retail prospects by name at the current stage of the recruitment process, he said “We are working with two grocery stores that have approved our market. We have deals pending with three or four retailers.”

Hayes followed Alsup in addressing the city council.

“We had a direct hand in facilitating some of the attention McAlester is receiving now,” Hayes said. He said the urban areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa are “pretty-well saturated,” meaning more attention for cities such as McAlester when retailers or restaurants are seeking to move into new areas.

Hayes also presented a rhetorical question: “We pay someone to do this. Why do we need you as a consultant?” That’s a reference  to the fact that the city already has Alsup as an economic development director.

“I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed,” Hayes said, but he added his mother raised him to be tenacious. As far as the increase in the fee from $1,000 to $2,500 a month, Hayes said “We’re not really upping it.” What the city paid before had been the discounted rate, he said.

Ward 5 City Councilor Buddy Garvin asked Hayes “Can you tell me what businesses you’ve brought to McAlester?”

“We’re working on a dozen,” Hayes said. When Garvin persisted with his question about how many retailers or restaurants Hayes has brought to McAlester over the past 12 months, Hayes said none at this point. Garvin asked Hayes if his input is crucial to the city’s economic development department.

“I believe it is,” Hayes said. “They’ve seen us open doors for them they haven’t been able to open.”

Following a bit more discussion, Garvin offered a comment.

“I’ve heard all the spiels about economic development,” Garvin said. “Blah, blah, blah...blah, blah blah. I haven’t seen anything to impress me yet.” 

Garvin said he questioned the need to pay someone from the outside $35,000 to work with the city’s economic development office

Mayor Steve Harrison also offered some input. He said paying $35,000 for 12 months “would bring you a fairly low-level employee.” In this case, the city is is paying for knowledge, he said.

Following the discussion, city councilors voted 4-to-1 in favor of keeping Retail Attractions as an economic development consultant at the new rate of $2,500 per month.

Voting in favor of the measure were Mayor Harrison, Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith, Ward 3 Councilor/Vice Mayor Travis Read and Ward 4 Councilor Robert Karr.

Garvin cast the sole “no” vote. Neither Ward 2 Councilor John Titsworth nor Ward 6 Councilor Jason Barnett attended the meeting.

Harrison related Thursday why he supported keeping Retail Attractions as an economic development consultant for the city.

“So much of economic development gets down to knowing how to focus your resources,” Harrison said. “We can get a Gap analysis from many sources.” The key is not simply getting the analysis and the information it contains, he said.

“It’s what you do with it to bring projects to McAlester.”