The Town Council on Wednesday hired a Cincinnati-based firm to find ways to refresh and energize retail in Palm Beach. But the council and Mayor Gail Coniglio said it’s crucial that the firm, Yard & Company, engage with residents to learn their ideas and concerns about the future of retail on the island. To that end, it postponed the study until around November when council members hope the worst of the pandemic will be over, and seasonal residents will be rolling back into town. “Putting it off until fall, when most of the population will be vaccinated and can participate in [in-person] meetings, is a great idea,” Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said. Council President Margaret Zeidman sought to reassure resident Anne Pepper, who worried that residents’ desires may be overshadowed by commercial interests.“We will do everything we can to include the community every step of the way,” Zeidman said.
Zeidman suggested a steering committee of residents be set up to establish its vision for the future of retail in town before Yard begins its study. The council approved a $94,500 contract with Yard, which plans to study retail on the island for 13 weeks, with assistance from town staff, and recommend a strategy to widen the customer base. A selection committee chose Yard over three other finalists who responded to a town request for proposals. Committee members noted Yard’s energetic approach to problem solving. “They have selected a great firm – a retail specialist,” Lindsay said.
About 40 storefronts are vacant, officials have said. Shopkeepers were struggling with a growing trend toward online shopping before being slammed a year ago by the global pandemic. Coniglio said the town’s shopping districts have had their ups and downs over the years and have been able to bounce back on their own, especially when landlords are committed to attracting retailers and restaurants that customers want. She cited the revitalization of Royal Poinciana Plaza as a prime example. But some council members said they believe the problem is deeper than that. “There has been a shift,” Zeidman said. “I worry we are not recognizing that shift when we say [the problem] is cyclical.” Yard will do a field survey of Palm Beach’s retail districts, perform a market analysis and look at how zoning rules might be amended so they are more business-friendly.
Councilwoman Julie Araskog dissented in the 4-1 decision to hire Yard. She said she was concerned that Yard’s proposal relies too heavily on support from town staff, and that it doesn’t make community involvement a focal point. Purchasing Agent Dean Mealy said, however, that once Yard’s proposal was approved, the town could request changes such as greater emphasis on community engagement.
In a separate decision, the council rejected $103,000 in donations from 12 donors, who offered up to $10,000 each, to cover the cost of the study. Araskog and Councilman Lew Crampton both said they were concerned the donation could tilt the findings toward the interests of developers – or at least create that perception with the public. Other council members didn’t see a problem with the private funding. Lindsay said the council will have the final say over whatever recommendations emerge. “I have no fear,” she said. “We’re still driving the bus.”
The council ultimately decided to pay for the endeavor with town funds rather than risk any perception of bias. Councilwoman Danielle Moore appeared torn over the decision. “We are turning down generous donations from our community,” she said. John David Corey, a member of the Architectural Commission, said the donors themselves aren’t the problem. But he said private donations shouldn’t be used for a study that will examine town land-use and zoning rules. “Those are strictly governmental endeavors,” he said.
Michael Ainslie, leader of the selection committee and chairman of the Planning, Zoning and Building Commission, told the council at its Dec. 8 meeting that, in speaking with many of the retail property owners, “I have found a near unanimous level of excitement and support for this project. Not only are they excited, virtually all have said they will assist the town financially in funding this project. I would fully expect 90 percent of the cost to be borne by the private sector.” The zoning commission recommended the retail study, saying it was important to ask retail owners about the impediments they face, to determine if there is too much retail space in town and whether converting retail space to residential may be an answer.