The Future of Old-Fashioned Downtowns: the public policy coal mine canary

This is the second part of…. well, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but something about downtown revitalization.  I posted the first part here, which kind of frames up the problem.  This part talks about what I’ve been seeing more specifically that’s starting to make me think we have a problem.  Your challenges, corrections and insights welcome.

What I’m Seeing: Public Policy as the Coal Mine Canary

 

This is what worries  me:  As I read and scan and talk to downtown colleagues nationwide, I’m seeing cities, both big and small, that fight internally, often over and over again, about whether the increasingly shrinking pot of money for making-the-community-better type projects should go to downtowns, or to other areas, which often claim (and often with a good deal of evidence behind them) that downtown investment only benefits Someone Else. In many cases, that Someone Else is richer, newer and sometimes differently-colored than the neighborhood. And downtown, it appears, is perceived as being mostly of benefit to Them.

 

The other thing I am seeing is that state programs that support downtown organizations, mostly by advising and training them and helping them connect to their peers in other downtowns, seem to find themselves with their heads on the political chopping block with depressing regularity.  Washington State recently became the most recent that I know of to write a draft budget that eliminates their Main Street program, a path that multiple states across the United States have at least taken a good hard look down over the past 15 years.  So this is not a new situation.

 

At the same times, states such as Ohio and North Carolina have looked at cutting, or cut, the tax credits that they have offered for historic preservation. My definitively non-scientific recollection has been that some state or the other has had to fight to maintain these programs pretty much every year for the last decade,or more — despite the fact that they can almost always point to great stories of landmark buildings rescued from being a blot on their communities, and all sorts of facts about jobs created and money invested of the type that politicians and advisors purportedly want to see.

 

(For those of you who are complete insiders on downtown issues, please realize that I’m trying to paint a picture of broad trends without writing War and Peace and losing everyone else. Every place, every fight, every story has its own details. They’re all special. I know that. That’s not my point here. Thanks.)

 

The macro-trend that I think I am picking up looks like this: Many downtowns are more vibrant and more interesting than they used to be, but, to a relatively large proportion of the people who are in charge at the city and larger level, those vibrant downtowns look like a happy piece of fluff: a positive and pleasant thing, but a luxury — a nice thing to have, but not a core need or something that the community cannot live without.  

 

I’m a diehard downtown advocate, but I’m also a practical person. And as I look at many of the downtowns that I encounter in my travels, I think I can understand what they are seeing, even if it’s not the whole story.

 

Too many downtowns, at least to the casual observer, look like entertainment districts for the relatively wealthy.  We’ve allowed a lot of downtowns to develop a one-dimensional, Flat Stanley economy: the place where all the hot new dining concepts land, and the one-of-a-kind homewares can be had, and where people still “shop” for recreation, the way kids of my generation would hang out in the mall and amuse themselves by spending money on sodas and CDs and maybe a pair of sunglasses.  Yes, we’ve helped many downtowns develop as places where people may now live in nice apartments, but the people who choose to live in them tell you that they moved there to be near the restaurants and the bars and the music and the cool little shops. Only later do they start complaining about the lack of stores that sell laundry detergent and paper towels.

 

The thing that concerns me is not that there are places where this exists. I want to shop and eat and live there, too.
What bothers me is that when our communities decide that this is enough.  When we decide that such a limited economic role for a downtown or commercial district is all we need, and when we focus on getting more and more of the same because it looks like it’s working.  We mean well, but when we do that, we are setting ourselves, our boutique owners, our restaurants and our residents up in a weak long-term position.

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