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by Jordan Green
Winston-Salem breaks custom with Mast General Stores incentives
Winston-Salem City Council voted 6-1 on Monday to approve an incentives package for Mast General Stores, a retail business founded in Valle Crucis in 1883 that has spread across the western Carolinas and east Tennessee providing an assortment of goods ranging from rocking chairs and jellies to high-end North Face hoodies and hammocks.
The $1.3 million package includes a $250,000 grant, a $500,000 low-interest loan, $250,000 in public infrastructure improvements including an upgrade to an alley between Cherry and Trade streets, and free and reduced parking for several years that is valued at $273,600.
The company plans to open a store in the Coe Building on North Trade Street in the spring of 2015. In exchange for incentives from the city, Deputy City Manager Derwick Paige said the company would make an overall investment of $10 million, including the development of 45 apartment units in the building. The deal would create 12-15 full-time jobs and 22-30 part-time jobs.
Vivian Joiner, co-owner of Sweet Potatoes restaurant, was among more than 15 downtown business owners and residents who showed up at the city council meeting to express support for the incentives request. Joiner said the restaurant will celebrate its 10 th anniversary in January, adding that Mast General Store would create an anchor for the other businesses on Trade Street.
“Help us make another 10 years,” Joiner told council. “Mast General with the incentives that they asked [for], every business would love to have those incentives. Can’t do it for everyone, but you have to do it sometimes. And I’m saying as a citizen, as a taxpayer, as a business owner, as a good neighbor, it’s a good decision.”
Mast General Store was described by Paige and Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership President Jason Thiel described Mast General Stores as a “destination retailer.”
“Typically, we don’t look at financial incentives for a retailer, but because of the nature of this project we think they’re a great investment for the city and will help spur retail investment in downtown Winston-Salem,” Paige told the city council’s finance committee last week.
Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke asked Paige what distinguished Mast General Stores from other potential retail projects.
“Because this is a downtown destination is the reason that we would look at providing incentives to a retailer in the downtown area,” Paige responded.
Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, who represents the Northwest Ward, was excused from the vote because of a conflict of interest. Those voting in favor of the incentives were Burke, East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery, Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor Jr., South Ward Councilwoman Molly Leight, West Ward Councilman Robert Clark and North Ward Councilwoman Denise D. Adams.
Councilman Dan Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward, explained that he was voting against the incentives package because “retail normally does not add to the overall economic activity in a city. New retail normally simply shifts around money that’s already being spent in an area for goods and services from one establishment to another.
“The assumptions are that this as what’s been called a ‘destination retail establishment,’ is not going to simply be taking revenue from other retail establishments in this city, but will be bringing in additional customers from outside the city that are not coming here now,” Besse continued. “That may be correct but it has not been demonstrated in the information that has been presented to us.”
Paige said after the meeting that the city has no data on the percentage of customers who come from outside of the communities where Mast General Stores are located — places like Asheville, Boone and Hendersonville in North Carolina; Greenville and Columbia in South Carolina; and Knoxville, Tenn.
“Most of the people you see, their license plates are outside of town; the accents are outside of town,” he said. “If it was a competitor, don’t you think you would have seen business people lined up to oppose it?” Besse said he considers it “good public policy” to provide incentives for downtown revitalization and for full-service grocery stores in low-income “food deserts,” but those type of projects should be distinguished from general economic development initiatives.
“I’m going to vote no as a way of calling attention to the fact that we desperately need to have a far better and more demanding set of guidelines for considering retail incentives generally before we move forward with projects of these sorts,” he said.