A former mayor of my fair city is currently airing a commercial. The point of said ad is to inspire consumers to spend their money in town. Simple enough.
Said mayor used to push a downtown revitalization campaign. That met with a certain small amount of success. Not great, but something. But that's eroded as of late. Bad economy, lack of investors willing to take a chance… same as all over the place.
Anyway, the former mayor paid for this commercial out of his own pocket, to drive home a point that, at 90, he still feels strongly about. It's running on select channels in this market. I haven't seen it myself except for You Tube. The newspaper tells us it's running concurrently with a campaign pushed by the city that urges us to "Love Local, Shop [my city]." It goes even further to tell us that the city plans to produce its own commercials later this year.
But the effort is doomed.
Because everyone's forgotten a few small factors here. Namely, there's not that many places to shop.
See, that's what the city council would say to me. "There's plenty of places to shop," they'd yell. "Why we've brought in a Kohls, a BedBath&Beyond, Dicks, Petsmart, TJMaxx…."
And in a way, they'd be right. All these stores are indeed well established within the geographical city limits. Yet their adamant declaration neglects to take into consideration one key point: distance.
This city, as defined, is 429 sq. miles. It's basically a county turned independent city, quite normal in these parts. The actual "city" part, founded in 1742, still exists as the recognized "downtown" area, and is what the rest of the region things about when you mention the name.
All of this much-vaunted recent retail development has not taken place in downtown. Rather, it's popped up in the far northeastern edge of the city. Almost in the next city over. Serving a new(ish), high-income, pricey, golf-centric community and its assorted developments. Where, I am given to understand, our mayor (she of the real estate agent background) lives. At least, it's where her office is. Her real estate office, that is, where she's still listed as an active agent. And mayor.
And I suppose it's no small coincidence that this one small sector of a 429 sq. mile chunk of has seen all the recent retail influx. Meanwhile, an entire region goes underserved. According to Google Maps, on a good day it's a 28 minute drive from here to there, 22 miles. Almost my work commute. I might as well stop off a few exits earlier, in the next city over, and do my shopping there. Or wait until I get to work – also in the next city over. (After all, there's no place for me to work here, closer to home.)
Let me tell you a little bit about downtown. What shopping centers there are in town are largely empty. In poorer areas, they're almost deserted. The older, traditional downtown area, a charming old-fashioned network of streets and office buildings, is collecting cobwebs. A few brave souls have established a business here and there – mainly restaurants, and good ones at that – and are trying to make a go of it. A few banks and mom-n-pops still remain. But everything else is sadly empty.
Main Street, the newer part, sports a Walmart, a BigLots, a Dollar General, a grocery store and a low-end Belk. None are bright and cheery; none but the supermarket has seen an overhaul in years; none are particularly well stocked. They're surrounded by fleabag motels, a handful of cell phone stores, and some fast-food joints. Oh, and payday lenders. Can't forget those.
There's also the empty lot where the hospital used to be. They built a brand spanking new one a little further up the road a little over ten years ago. (It took a shot from the tornado a few years back.) The old lot is still empty. Nicely wooded; it's waterfront; it would make a nice apartment complex, city park, or even – dare I say it – retail space. Instead, efforts to sell it have repeatedly been scuttled and it sits there, getting overgrown. The last article I can find on it says that a developer was going to build shops, apartments, and a movie theatre, to be finished by the end of 2007.
It's a crime, really. Especially since downtown isn't just serving those of us living near it. This is the closest city that most of the rural part of the region (and part of the next state) has. There are dozens of small farming towns – hamlets, really – that dot the landscape, and they have nowhere to go. To not encourage development in a more central part of the city is to miss a huge opportunity to provide for a larger audience.
Yet the current mayor sees nothing wrong with the fact that your average family in this town has to drive a half-hour to buy a decent pair of jeans. Or shoes. Or visit a toy store. Or go to a movie. Or hit a high-end department store for something special. Or even just Target. It's 40 minutes to a book store. Want more than basic groceries? Or need to buy or service a car that's not a Ford, Chevy, or Chrysler? Yep… at least 30 minutes.
Or I could head in the opposite direction – which I'm sure a lot of folks do – and head up to Williamsburg (45 minutes) or Richmond (an hour to 90 minutes, depending on where you're going).
I really don't mind driving overmuch to get somewhere. I moved out here precisely because it wasn't overdeveloped and overpriced. I don't particularly want a strip mall on every corner, repeating the same six stores. What I would like is for there to be basic necessities within a reasonable distance. And I'd like my elected officials (the same ones who attempted to vote themselves a 21% raise this year) to pay attention to the entire city, not just their well-manicured corner.
In any case, I'm taking money out of town. And I'd love to keep it here. Provide construction jobs, and retail jobs and management jobs and give people a reason to come this way. I've even pondered how the quaint downtown district could be made over in the style of those little retail "villages" that seem to be all the rage in the post shopping mall world.
But then, one has a lot to think about on one's 60 mile round trip to buy dog food.