Our downtown has a number of prosperous tenants and keeps on going despite the rise of chain stores and restaurants. Many towns are not so lucky. On a recent trip to Iowa, I noticed that many smaller towns have all but abandoned their downtown areas. Old buildings are boarded up; two-lane streets are dusty and empty.
This is particularly sad because it is these downtown areas that distinguish a city’s identity. Nobody writes postcards back from New York singing the praises of chain restaurants. Nobody returns from New Orleans to tell their friends about the beautiful big-box stores. People don’t come home from San Francisco with photos of a strip mall. Locally owned businesses are what make a city worth living in.
I know that people treasure our historic Main Street because every ArtWalk, Jazz Festival, parade and holiday event brings in a crowd. Families flock downtown with kids and dogs in tow every time they block off the streets and bring out the funnelcake. I am glad to see such a turnout for these events, but I can’t help but wonder how many of these people actively support the downtown area with their dollars, and not just with their presence at these events.
The difference between a real Main Street and the imitations found at malls and theme parks is that the real thing needs a community, not a corporation, to help it survive. I imagine that if every family in Longmont took a day to explore downtown, it would be a boon to the local economy and would help ensure its future for generations to come.
While a community is needed to enrich a downtown economy, I would argue that the reverse is true as well.
My old hometown, a dying post-industrial ghetto when I split in the early 90s, has finally done the smart thing and taken advantage of its one natural attraction. It’s on the shores of Lake Michigan, and has the most beautiful harbor I’ve ever seen, bar none. About five years ago, developers started putting up lofts and condos that took advantage of the lake views available (the entire downtown having basically rusted out when steel and manufacturing collapsed), and the downtown is now full of cute little restaurants and shops and local antique stores, the vintage buildings all freshly tuckpointed and renovated. When I grew up there was one coffee shop, now there’s probably a dozen. I drive through there now and think, if I hadn’t grown up here, I’d move here in a second.