We’ve all heard about how downtowns have failed in smaller cities while big box stores like Walmart succeed; what we don’t really talk about is why and what’s the solution. First we need to establish that suburban big box stores are horrible for people and the economy (which is easy); then we need to address those core issues. The folks over at Strong Towns do exactly that and recently published a great piece exploring how the costs of running a big box operation from the perspective of a city is high. The solution then should be easy: reinforce local economies for success.
And we should also recognize where our wealth really comes from. It comes from our downtown and our core neighborhoods (those within walking distance of the downtown). It certainly doesn’t come from people driving through those places. It doesn’t come from people commuting in. It doesn’t come from tourists or developers or the potential of land development out on the edge. Our wealth — the wealth built slowly over generations — is slowly seeping away in our downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Put these things together — the need to build resilience and the historic wealth that still remains in our core — and the strategy becomes too obvious to ignore: We need to piece our economic ecosystem back together. We shouldn’t spend a penny on the mall — we should be willing to let it fall apart and collapse if the market can’t support it. But we should support those investments in the core that are already paying our bills.
And here’s the really sweet thing: the downtown doesn’t need millions of dollars of investment. There are some trying to force that down the city’s throat, but we don’t need it. It’s already the most successful area in the region. We just need to start reconnecting things.