Why can't those downtown merchants get it right?

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There's an interesting and sad article in today's Palladium-Item, Main Street struggles for survival.  Articles like it are being written about struggling downtown areas across the country, so of course it's nothing new in "this economy," but because it's about the downtown in my community, I take special notice.

The article contains some interviews with downtown business owners, some perspective on the history of the Main Street organization there, and some talk of renewed activity from merchants and business owners (myself among them) in helping make the area thrive.  But there's something missing from the picture the article paints.

One key angle that the article glosses over is the role that the rest of the community plays in creating and maintaining a thriving downtown.  While there's certainly some role for business owners and merchants to play in creating a thriving downtown, it's not entirely their burden to bear.  Retail districts live and die by the shopping choices of their customers, and so it seems important to recognize in any conversation about the health of a downtown that at least some of it is dictated by the "consumer culture" of the surrounding community.

It would be interesting to interview some "regular citizens" and ask them where they tend to shop, and how they perceive the downtown area.  "Given the choice between going downtown to support a business there and going to the mall or a big box store, how do you decide?"  Are they willing to pay a little more for products and services knowing those dollars stay in the community longer (thus supporting the long-term health of the area), or will they always prioritize convenience and the lowest available price?

It also seems worth looking at the environment of governmental and political support surrounding downtown.  Is it possible that city, county and state laws might be negatively impacting the ability of downtown business to thrive?  Is it possible that our approach to zoning, transportation, taxpayer-funded economic development and taxation are favoring non-local chain businesses over those who would choose to start and grow a small business in the place they live?  Is it possible that politics and personalities are at times standing in the way of a thriving central business district instead of nurturing it?

I've blogged about these ideas before:

The value we get from a strong and diverse local business community is hard to see when compared as a "bottom line deal" against the attractions of the "big box" stores. And I'm not suggesting that these larger retailers don't have a place in a strong local economy. But my hope is that we'll see the Target store closing as yet another indicator of an important trend. By putting so many of our eggs in baskets that lack the personal ties and community investments that our local businesses are built around, we set ourselves up for even greater disappointments and more noticeable disappearance of the business ethic, entrepreneurship, and innovative spirit around which Richmond has historically been built.

There's no question that the economic health of our downtown is based on complex systems with lots of variables.  The business owners and downtown merchants are mostly already doing their part - they're running their businesses and they're engaged in the life of the business district and the wider community.  As a small business owner myself, I know that there's probably not a whole lot of time left over for those hard-working folks to ALSO do the marketing, advocacy, legislative and policy work needed to help downtown compete against strip malls and big box stores.

So what role does the rest of the Richmond community have in creating a thriving main street area?  How do your choices make a difference in the health of downtown?

8 thoughts on “Why can't those downtown merchants get it right?

  1. Here is something to consider:
    I distinctly remember there being some kind of downtown event one time, where they cordoned off main street so that the promenade was MOSTLY walkable again (barring a traversal of 27 N/S). When 5pm rolled around, nearly all of the businesses closed their doors, even though the event was still going strong.

    Most of the businesses did not set out sidewalk displays, or try to approach people to answer questions about their business -- it was just "yet another day" for most of them.

    That said -- I do agree with you about the consumer culture in town, but I don't think you can entirely blame the citizens -- it's an economically deprived area, with a disproportionate number of people living near/at/below the poverty line; being a penny-pincher just goes with the territory, and it doesn't help that many of the downtown events (eg. 4th street fair) largely offer consumer-oriented options (homemade crafts, foodstuffs, and secondhand selling), rather than entertaining. It always felt like everyone wanted our money, rather than wanting to share culture.

    Here in Ithaca, there is a very thriving downtown commons area, but this area also has barely any crime, and is disproportionately affluent (Cornell skews it upwards). While there are a few empty storefronts, most of them are successful enough to stay open.

    Richmond's promenade seems to have been more successful when the economic state of the region was better (ie. before the factories all closed down). I think a commons area like that is more a Canary than a Coal Mine. If you can find any way to convince low-income families that "saving at wal-mart" actually moves the community further down the spiral, but otherwise, the only option (IMHO) seems to be to hope that downtown can remain mostly preserved until the economy recovers.

    (that said, the re-vitalization of the depot district always struck me as promising -- but perhaps that's because it was developing organically in tandem with the current economic state, rather than trying to fit the old square peg into the newer, less-affluent, round hole).

  2. I think we have a great exampleof how things can change right here with the Depot district. That used to be the one of the scariest areas in town. All it took was some dedicated business owners and a little city help and now look at it. What we need to have for the downtown to strive, are business owners like you Chris, that pull together and force the city to join in the cause. Make it a place that is desirable by looking at what is working for other cities and pattern after something that works. Our downtown could be great.

  3. From a marketing perspective - let's have the focus group. Great idea! How can I help? I have people, a flip cam and time - let's go (I'm serious).

    As a customer, I will share my own experience. From my own personal perspective - downtown merchants do not reach out, do not network and rarely market themselves to remind me they are there. The only time I hear about downtown is in an article in the PI about their lack of customers.

  4. As one who has been connected now to Richmond, Indiana, for 30 years, and done enough interviews with people who worked on the downtown 40 and 50 years ago, I can say this: downtown Richmond has been like this (stagnant, half closed) for a long time, and is not likely to change, not in the near future. Aaron's right: the merchants expect customers to adjust to their schedules. It's also very true that a larger canvas of social and economic ills is at work here. One that has been brewing since the late 1950's.

    How about a really radical idea (please, no focus groups): stop caring whether downtown exists or not. The era of the downtown mattering is over. It's a pretty conceit from a different time. Some affluent towns still have downtowns, but they are usually clusters of coffeeshops, bookstores, gift shops, taverns (upscale), restaurants, and not the real heart of any community.

    What is the real heart of Richmond? Depends who you ask. Maybe it's the hospital. Maybe it's the complex of I.U. East and IVY Tech. Maybe it really is WalMart. Maybe it's a steady trade in heroin. Maybe the real heart of Richmond is in the bank accounts of the middle and upper managers who come and go through Richmond, on their way up or down, making as much money as they can while they are here, and making most of it by exploiting the real wealth that is Richmond's: a huge source of local, cheap, undereducated labor.

  5. Richmond is neither big enough nor affluent enough to support both a thriving downtown and an influx of big box stores and chain restaurants.

    Richmond had a thriving downtown well over 30 years ago. By the time I was in high school and college, downtown was going downhill. Many local merchants had closed. Others, such as Lohr's and Knollenberg's were on their last legs. The demise of downtown probably would have happened without the Promenade, but the Promenade probably did not help matters. It may have even hastened the closings of some businesses.

    Frankly, I wonder how long the remaining businesses will be able to stay open.

  6. As I am contemplating a move to Richmond, I can't helpbut be depressed by this entry, although it does give me a grasp on the reality of the economic situation there (not a huge worry, as thankfully, my income is stable). I wonder though how the downtown area has gone from award winning in 09 to this? Is there something I'm missing?

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