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Saving our downtowns, one megamall at a time

In Business, Dayton Ohio News, Economy, history, Jobs, Local News, Opinion, Politics, Uncategorized on September 25, 2013 at 9:37 am

DIH LOGOLast week I covered a story for the local newspaper about a business that has been in downtown Xenia, Ohio for more than 70 years. To celebrate, the chamber of commerce held a ribbon cutting attended by the usual fare of friends, associates and dignitaries, all wanting either to sincerely congratulate the proprietors or mug their way into the photo op. Whatever their reasons for attending, it was refreshing to see people taking an interest in a small town’s revitalization.

Every day local governments offer tax breaks and other perks designed to attract new businesses to settle in their region, the obvious benefits to which are jobs and tax revenue. A good idea, of course, but while they’re building new strip malls on one end of town, the downtown sits empty and abandoned leaving the same government officials to puzzle over what to do with empty, decaying buildings.

So why not provide more incentive for businesses to locate in existing downtown areas before adding more sprawl? For those already there, encourage them to stay rather than making it easier for them to move into the latest strip mall.

Some communities sprang up from joined housing developments but for those like Xenia, Bellbrook, Jamestown and Fairborn, there is history, culture and charm still to be reclaimed. It’s truly puzzling why there is not more incentive to do what Xenia’s business owners are doing very well – revitalize and rejuvenate the downtown.

mall interiorMost confusing of all is the approval by local governments of sprawling mega-malls like The Greene, in Kettering, or is it Beavercreek? I’m not sure even they know where they are located. The brick walkways and old-fashioned street lights illuminating an array of sidewalk cafes and specialty shops were designed to look just like old downtown shopping squares that have long since been abandoned.

While they might add something to the local job market, these monster malls with their fake skylines, congested parking lots and Segway-riding rent-a-cops, do little to enhance the community. The sad thing is, eventually, the buildings go out of style and repulse new customers after a dozen years or so.

When Beavercreek’s Mall at Fairfield Commons first opened, it was all the rage; no more driving all the way out to Centerville or northwest Dayton to shop at an indoor mall. Today, there are huge unoccupied spaces in all of the indoor retail behemoths as businesses either shut down or move into newly-designed malls.

Believe it or not, “If you build it, they will come,” applies far more to retail sales than it ever did to a cornfield baseball diamond, so build it downtown. No matter where you put the temples of American gluttony and materialism people will find them and go to worship the almighty Abercrombie.

City governments should do more to help property owners attract major tenants to the old downtown areas, particularly big mall-style anchor stores. It would only take a couple of them to generate more interest from others and grow revenue for the property owners and the municipality.

Over the next month or so, small town politicians will be scrambling to win over your vote. Ask them the same questions posed here. If we really want to save our downtown areas, we have to start at the government level.

Instead of spending time and money worrying about ridiculous issues like whether a store’s sign is wood or plastic, how about making it easier and more attractive for businesses to locate in the downtown areas? It really is that easy.

A civic ambassador with a high-level business background in national retail sales could help to develop a plan of action and take it to companies like Macy’s and Abercrombie. Show them that it’s possible to create the genuine version of the fake atmosphere so popular at the outdoor malls. If it’s done properly, it would bring people downtown again to shop, eat and socialize.

Small business cannot support such efforts without a few major players in the ballgame. If there are to be more 70-year old businesses downtown, there needs to be a downtown for them to be in.

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