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?
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?