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Retail Coach working on new hotel, restaurants

A retail recruitment group working for the city and county says it has three new businesses on the hook for Brookhaven.

Retail development group The Retail Coach told county supervisors Monday they are negotiating with two restaurants and a hotel in an attempt to get the businesses to open up new shops in Brookhaven. Recruitment specialist Caroline Hearnsberger would not say more, and the meeting was quickly covered with the usual veil of secrecy that attends the group’s public appearances, as supervisors declared an executive session and talked privately with her for more than an hour.

“We’re working positively with some restaurants — a drive-through-style establishment and a sit-down restaurant — and a hotel group as well. We feel like we’ve been really successful lately,” Hearnsberger said.

Supervisors are in the second year of a two-year, almost $30,000 contract with The Retail Coach, a Tupelo-based consulting and market research firm that works with local governments to identify gaps in retail communities and fill them by recruiting like businesses to open new stores in the area.

The group’s first year is devoted to researching the local economy, with active recruiting taking place in the second year.

Supervisors have been skeptical of The Retail Coach this year as they have weighed the cost of the contract against road and bridge needs around the county. They didn’t sign the second-year contract when it first came before them on March 5, tabling the matter to see what city aldermen — who are partners on the contract — would do.

Aldermen signed up the next day, and supervisors followed suit in a docket meeting on March 8.

But supervisors have complained about the firm’s reluctance to show up in Lincoln County to report on its progress — Hearsnberger’s visit Monday was The Retail Coach’s first appearance in the board room in six months — and about the nature of the reports when they’re given. The Retail Coach always requests its reports be given in executive session, even if the reports do not appear to include confidential information.

“Last time, all they said was something about an eating joint on Brookway and a bunch of times we’ve been turned down,” District 3 Supervisor Nolan Earl Williamson said in March when the board pushed the contract renewal aside.

Two restaurants have publicly made plans to open new locations on Brookway Boulevard—Zaxby’s and Smoothie King. Construction on Zaxby’s has begun in the parking lot near Waffle House, but no action has followed earlier discussions about Smoothie King.

It is unclear if those restaurants were discussed with supervisors since the meetings with The Retail Coach have been in closed session and not open to the public. It does not appear The Retail Coach is involved in the effort to bring Zaxby’s to Brookhaven. City officials last October credited a team of local investors with the Zaxby’s project.

City aldermen have also called executive sessions for The Retail Coach for “contract negotiations,” which is not one of 14 reasons state law allows for closing public meetings.

District 1 Supervisor and Board President the Rev. Jerry Wilson has been critical of The Retail Coach and let Hearnsberger know it Monday.

“I just got a bad taste in my mouth about y’all,” he said before the executive session. “Why does it take so long to come back and give us an update?”

Hearnsberger said her group stays in close contact with Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Garrick Combs.

“We love to see you here, but we’d rather see a business coming in,” said District 5 Supervisor Doug Falvey.