Speak Your Piece: ‘Boutiquing’ Main Street

Main Street programs promise -- and deliver -- an eye-pleasing downtown that's friendly to tourists. But investing in what local folks need and want may be a better development strategy for small communities,  says Texan Kelley Snowden.

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I live in a small Main Street town, which means we’ve followed the National Main Street Center’s methods for restoring and revitalizing our historic downtown.

The historic downtown is chock full of “unique entrepreneurial businesses,” in the language of the Texas Historical Commission, including a seemingly endless variety of antique stores.

But I don’t spend a lot of time downtown. There’s nothing I need there. I don’t need antiques. I need toothpaste, something to cook for supper, and toilet paper. I can’t get those downtown.

On those rare occasions when I do go downtown, I have to compete with tourists to get my business done. The streets and sidewalks are congested with traffic, and parking is at a minimum. While I’m glad that tourists come and spend their money, I really don’t want to get into a nest of them.

That’s the problem with the Main Street program. It does a great job of helping towns preserve and gussy-up their downtowns, but in and of itself, does it really serve the broader local community?

Now before you come after me with pitchforks and tell me how many small businesses Main Street has spawned and how many jobs it has provided, just listen a moment. Those small businesses? Many don’t last, and you end up with dreams rotating through empty store fronts. According to a study done for Southeastern Geographer in 2002 on predicting the success or failure of Main Street towns, the author states, “The 'boutiquization' of small town America led to increased vacancy rates because many of these retail establishments (such as craft shops and antique stores) had a difficult time making a profit and staying in business.”

Those jobs? At the front end, when buildings are being restored, jobs in construction may be available, but these will only last as long as it takes to get the structures in shape. Also, much of this work may be conducted by contractors and their crews who specialize in restoration, thus limiting hiring at the local level.

Once the buildings are restored and businesses start to move in, if they are hiring (assuming it’s not a Mom & Pop store), it’s a service sector job, pays minimum wage, and does not come with benefits.

Another thing to consider is that tying part of your economy to the tourist industry means you have to be able to ride out the bad times to benefit from the good, as tourism is not only seasonal, but ebbs and flows with the economy. This cycle can wreak havoc on a small business, and if they aren’t doing well during the good times, they may end up shuttered.

All this taken together means that before your town jumps on the Main Street wagon, you need to seriously consider what it will do to, and for, your community. If your goal is to restore your downtown and create a hub for tourism, that’s great. It can do that. What it can’t do is single-handedly bring larger economic development to your town.

Main Street revitalization focuses on the development of service sector jobs in the central busines district. All things considered, that’s a pretty narrow focus both geographically and economically.

If you are counting on Main Street to increase the number of people moving to your town, think again. People will come for good jobs, good schools, good neighborhoods, and a good local economy. They don’t come for interesting architecture, quaint antique stores, or old time soda fountains.

Main Street is not a panacea for your economic woes. To counter difficult economic issues, from the outset your economic development plan should be as diverse as possible and focus on the local community first.

Yes, consider making Main Street, or some form of heritage tourism, part of your plan, but don’t make it the linchpin. If the local community is prosperous, everything else will follow, including tourists in search of that unique antique or handmade quilt to put in their living room. 

Kelley Snowden lives and works in East Texas.

 

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