The Full Value of Main Street

The Business section of last Sunday’s (March 23) Democrat & Chronicle included a front page article on the problems faced by Main Street businesses in a retail economy dominated by Big Boxes and other chains.

I was pleased to see it. As the article pointed out, with some choice quotes from Geneseo’s Louise Wadsworth, Main Streets are struggling to find their place, their market niche, as centers of value, service, and specialization, in a shopping landscape of malls, strip malls, plazas, and power centers.

Yet, I came away from the article with a sense that it was a story only half told. While we all recognize the appeal – nostalgic, quaint, attractive, authentic, human-scaled – of Main Streets, and while we all root for their success, their value is far more than just to our senses. Main Streets and locally-owned businesses are a critical cog in a healthy and sustainable local economy.

To draw some attention to this other half of the story, I wrote the following letter to the editor:

Sunday’s article, “Village stores struggling,” was a welcome reminder of the costs that Big Boxes and retail sprawl have on Main Streets and locally-owned businesses. I’m sure many of us feel a sense of loss at the closing of these businesses.

Missing from the article, however, was a consideration of just how great an economic loss this represents. The value of Main Streets is not simply the authentic alternative they provide to chain stores or the nostalgic longing that they satisfy.

Money spent in local businesses is more likely to stay in the community, to pay local workers and suppliers, earn interest in local banks, pay for local advertising, be counted by local accountants, and support local charities. This “local premium” pays significant dividends not paid by chain businesses.

Local businesses deserve our patronage. They also deserve the support of lawmakers. Zoning that limits store sizes and discourages sprawl, limits on subsidies to retailers, and efforts to insure that developers bear the costs they impose on infrastructure are a good place to start.

The “local premium” that I refer to is real and quantifiable, though rarely do we go to the trouble. Research by Civic Economics, the state of the art practitioners of economic impact analyses, has found that local businesses “generate more than three times the local economic activity of their competitor chain stores on equal revenue.” I expect to hear more about this at next week’s APOG conference on economic development.

Though the economic impact analysis that has been conducted for the proposed Geneseo Lowe’s is a great step forward in the thorough local review of development proposals, it does not consider the local premium. Rather, it includes only the most easily quantified impacts: on jobs and taxes.

Even there, it tends to favor positive impacts, measuring the new property and sales taxes that will be provided by the Lowe’s store, but not measuring the property taxes that will be lost by residential properties devalued by traffic and commercial properties – throughout the county – devalued by excess capacity. Likewise for jobs, with new jobs and wages easily measured, while jobs and hours worked that are lost and wages that are held down are harder to measure.

Patronizing Main Streets is not simply an exercise in nostalgia or a way to find that hard-to-find item. It is an investment in our communities. Without that investment, the community, in the many senses of the word, will be lost.

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7 responses to “The Full Value of Main Street

  1. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your post. I have been working on a project to promote small towns by entering them into a web-based network called smallwander.com. Once towns realize that there is economic development to be had by using their smallness and uniqueness as a leveraging tool, there might be added resistance to standard, cookie-cuter, big-box development.

    Best of luck in upstate NY. It’s a great region. I grew up in Albany.

  2. John:

    I enjoyed clicking through your website. The small towns of upstate New York are jewels, full of history, character, and beautiful architectural. It’s hard to watch some – like ours – be sprawled while surrounding towns are starved by the loss of viable businesses.

    Best wishes in your efforts to protect and promote the small towns of the southeast.

    Bill

  3. What I consider to be at the heart of this development problem really starts at the top. We have a large county government that has only one item on it’s mind. Expand and have more taxes come in to them, at all cost. From their point of view, why not grow the hell out of the town where they are located. To them it shows prosperity and they do not care about the small businesses that will pass into dust. Even if it takes away an American Historical District.

    What they have considered is that Big Boxes bring more money than what tourist could possibly do. History be damned. Plus, what is more hideous? They have forsaken their smaller communities, which could be revitalize with the help of a big business. They have ways to deal with communities that argue that point too. There are some communities that look like they may expire in our delightful county of Livingston. But I must point out that the majority of the county isn’t interested if our little main street has quaint shops or goes the route of other college towns and line bars up one after another. Folks, it’s like this, most taxpayers are afraid of what the economy will ultimately do. So fearful that many of these misconceptions about big boxes make them think that there may still be a few jobs left when all is said and done.

    What I believe is that when the Lowe’s corporation does go in, they will not be able to sustain themselves and we will be left with the mess. For those of you in government who think I’m not right, you best turn on the PBS and catch the Wall Sreet report. The slope has tilted and there is so much country slippery debt, that big boxes and little boxes will find it hard to survive. Of course, leaving the taxpayers the bill.

  4. Pingback: Preserving Small Towns « Small Towns

  5. I understand Jim Allen’s frustration with the Geneseo Town government not playing by the rules. Although, the ultimate way that this issue will be solved is by lawsuit. The previous Supervisor created a “make it up as you go” type government. If the Master Plan wasn’t going the way he wanted, throw it out.

    Hell the “Plan” has been so cobbled up, it doesn’t resemble anything a proper government would use. In the end, this town “bunch” will continue the legacy and will not follow New York State government rules and guidelines until they get sued for failure to uphold those laws. Even at Town meetings, which I used to attend, the real work of government was done on the phone or behind closed doors.

    Want to try and fix it? Talk to Bill Lofquist, he know where all this is going in the end. In front of a judge.

  6. Thanks for expressing the value of the “local premium”! Glad to find you, pointed this way by the Small Wanderer.

  7. Hi Bill;
    Great editorial. I added a link from my website to it as I am wanting to promote and preserve downtown and main street America, people’s memories of their home town, what buildings were where, etc.

    Downtowns are the soul of many communities and it is important for their unique character to be preserved, lest they be replaced by strip malls and big box stores and become homogenous to every other town in America.

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