These last two years have taken a toll on retail establishments. Small retail businesses, particularly those which focus on selling non-essential items, or competing on service and experience rather than price (basically doing all the things we’ve been telling them to do) have been particularly hard hit as consumers tighten their belts and count their pennies. The Labor Dept. reports that an additional 85,000 jobs were lost in December and that national unemployment remains around 10.0%. Not good statistics for anyone hoping consumer spending will bring us out of the recession. Consumer optimism may indeed be improving, Wall Street may be improving; however, people still have to have money to spend money.
As I watch rural communities struggle with how to revitalize downtowns, I become more and more convinced that we need to take another look at the questions we are asking. We need to go all the way back to the original “why”. “Why go downtown?” Not why shop downtown vs Walmart or the strip mall, but simply “why go downtown?” When I do follow-up survey work with local constituents the “because” is the interesting part of the question’s answer.
Fr’instance, when talking to a local trustee at a community I was working in he insisted that a particular building needed to be refurbished and a restaurant tenant needed to be found. When I pointed out that that particular building was far from the vibrant corners of the street and that rents for the building were higher than those in a nearby more populous community, he countered with: “When I was in high school, this is where everything in town happened. People came in from the country to get together and hear the bands. Weddings were held here. It was the spot in town where everyone came together.”
He was describing the community’s third place. [the first place is where you live, the second where you work, the third where you gather] What we need to understand is what functions as third places in this community today and how foster that in the downtown. People may continue to go elsewhere to shop for low prices, parking convenience, whatever, but where and why do they gather?
This is a conversation I will be watching. What about your community? What are third places that work for you?