Walker — Walker is missing out on $83 million in retail sales every year, according to a new Southeastern Louisiana University study.
Last week, researchers met with city officials and Livingston Parish business leaders to discuss their findings and begin talking about ways to lure businesses and shoppers to Walker.
The bottom line — people who live in and around Walker spend substantially more money than what is coming into the city’s businesses.
The city’s “trade area” — the zone from which it can reliably draw regular customers — covers about 100 square miles and is growing rapidly. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the population ballooned 54 percent to 17,255 residents, according to the study, and demographers expect the number to keep rising.
Households in the trade area also make more money than the Louisiana average, earning about $58,000 per year, the study states.
But every day, 97 percent of the city’s residents go to work in Baton Rouge or another parish and take their spending money with them, filling up their gas tanks, grabbing lunch or shopping in the communities where they work or on the drive home.
“All of Livingston Parish has a problem … with out-commuting,” study author Herb Holloway told city officials.
And Walker’s competition continues to grow, most evident at Juban Crossing, the large retail center one highway exit to the west, where dozens of new stores have held ribbon-cuttings in the past year or plan to open soon.
Juban can have the big-box stores and national chains, Holloway told the City Council. Walker can still support small businesses with niche markets, such as stores for children’s merchandise or new restaurants.
In fact, Mayor Rick Ramsey first approached SLU’s Business Research Center to find out how to draw in new eateries, said center Director William Joubert. However, they decided to step back and examine the city’s economy more generally.
In luring new businesses, Walker authorities shouldn’t “pick winners and losers,” cautioned Larry Collins, president of the Livingston Economic Development Council. While the market should determine who sets up shop in the city, there are some things officials can do to urge progress, such as adding economic information to the city’s website so prospective investors can research the area.
Collins suggested the city work with the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce to see if any local companies would like to open a new branch in Walker, disseminate the retail study to business associations in the region to show there’s room for growth and send representatives to trade shows to generate interest.
Joubert said he hopes the city can use the results of the study to host a seminar with investors, developers and business owners to discuss their options.
“This is the beginning of a process,” he said Thursday night.
Walker may never corner some areas of the market, Holloway said. For example, the city loses a lot of retail dollars in car sales, but for such a big purchase, most drivers are willing to travel, so the city may never attract a raft of dealerships.
One of Walker’s selling points is its position on Interstate 12. However, the daily traffic jams, especially at the Walker South Road overpass, give businesses cause for concern, as drivers stuck in traffic are less likely to stop in and shop, Livingston Parish Board of Realtors President Kayla Johnson said.
Roads will be the biggest hurdle to attracting new business, she said.
But Walker does have a number of projects in the works that may draw a curious investor. A new community and technical college is planning to open in two or three years, which will bring hundreds of students to the city. Several manufacturing businesses are in construction near or inside the city, which will bring workers and families, Ramsey pointed out. And unlike competitor Denham Springs, Walker still has open spaces for sale.
Asked if the city should look to annex more land, Ramsey said expansion would not be possible until Walker can upgrade its sewer system.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.