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Who Killed Your Downtown?

Yesterday a friend jokingly commended me for supporting a local business. As someone who has spent over 20 years developing franchise companies and replicable business systems, it probably would be shocking to most who care, just how much time I spend avoiding franchises. Especially food franchises.

While I would like to convince myself that I am doing my part to try and “discover” a mom & pop business that could be the next great thing, that could be turned into a national franchise, the vast majority of the time things are disappointing: the service, the food consistency, uncertain hours of operation,the experience (or lack thereof) and the list goes on.

I really wish this weren’t the case. I wonder why it is that independently owned business simply don’t get why a Wal-Mart can put them out and what to do about it. Why is it that a local Mexican restaurant is forced to close when a Chilis opens? Why are independent music and book stores are almost as common as phone booths these days?

Even more disturbing is the changing landscapes of our many cities and small towns. Most downtowns have now become ghost towns. Finding a thriving downtown community is truly something unusual – maybe one of the reasons I’m fixated on Middletown, CT so much. The name, the people, the restaurants and pubs, it’s a very unusual and a rare little microcosm. One that I appreciate highly.

Instead big boxes buy up cheap agricultural land on the outskirts of a town, have the town rezone (because where else will we be able to “park 400 cars and did we mention the sales tax revenue benefits?”). Let’s build a few strip centers right next door to the big boxes so people can get something to eat, drop off their dry cleaning and purchase a $4 coffee. Meanwhile the historic district downtown struggles to get businesses to stay and those who do are typical short-term mom & pop affairs: Locals, ‘mompreneurs’ and “Technicians suffering from entrepreneurial seizures” as business guru Michael Gerber so eloquently put it 20+ years ago (read The E-myth). The independent business 95% of the time can’t compete with the national franchises and so residents don’t bother to even drive through downtown, let alone shop there.

It’s all very disturbing and very sad. If we can’t get independent businesses to at least a competitive level with the national chains, then we need to start providing incentives to those franchises to use historic building and spaces. Off-set some of their build-out expenses so they use existing instead of building brand new. Doing what’s right is RARELY in alignment with what’s cost-effective or timely. We need to leave the farmland to farmers and get ourselves out of the strip center mentality that has ruled us for too long. This is less about nostalgia and more about the evolution of retail and business. Back to your roots, back to your towns and back to your local businesses, for better or worse.


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