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Expert: White collar jobs best way to change demographics

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com ∑ 340-2435

Decatur does not have the demographics to attract high-end retail, but could city leaders change that?

Maybe, said a site-selection consultant whose clients include high-end retailers and restaurants, but only by recruiting white-collar employers.

Dave Huntoon, director of client services at Pitney Bowes MapInfo, said if city leaders have a goal of attracting more high-end retail options for residents, luring more manufacturing facilities to Decatur is the wrong way to do it.

ďIf Decatur is attracting more industry thatís going to attract the same types of employees that it already has, then itís not going to have a discernible shift on the types of people that live there,Ē Huntoon said.

Indeed, the very thing attracting industry — low wages — repels high-end retailers.

If the goal is retail expansion, the method has to be changing the demographics.

In theory high-end housing developments catering to Huntsville workers could help, Huntoon said, but he was not optimistic. Adding enough such households to influence the demographics of the core population is unlikely.

The problem is simple math. Letís say a proposed upscale development on Burleson Mountain is wildly successful, resulting in 400 households populated entirely by new residents with average household incomes twice that of existing Decatur residents. Even in that bizarre scenario, it would bump up Decaturís average household income by only 1 percent.

It would take a lot of Burleson Mountains to catch the attention of Nordstrom.

ďItís not like housing developers are running out of land in Madison,Ē Huntoon said, ďso if developers want to do a high-end suburb to serve the Huntsville market, itís going to be a lot easier to put it in Madison where itís a shorter commute. As a developer, Iíve got to convince people to make that daily commute from Decatur to Huntsville.Ē

A better way to improve demographics, suggested Huntoon, would be to ditch the policy of pursuing manufacturers.

ďIf Decatur really wanted to change that image (among retailers), the better way to do it would be to go after a more affluent employer base, a more white-collar employer base, and use that as the basis to bring in a more affluent consumer,Ē Huntoon said. ďThat would generate the demand for higher-end retail. Thatís probably the best way to do it.Ē

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