Submitted by Faye Gaston
The Herald has permission to print a series of writings about revitalizing the main street of downtown of a city. Jeff Siegler, a Main Street Manager, is sharing information that he gained from his experiences.
The downtown must function as the central marketplace for a city to succeed. If the downtown stops operating as a marketplace, then suddenly, a city stops functioning. When people have no centralized place to get goods and services, they must travel further to acquire them, thus taking their money out of their community. At the same time, those social interactions that are vital for holding a community together are lost. As more people drive to the market, the city grows less walkable, less attractive, less close-knit, less lovable, and less economically self-reliant. There is a reason that every single city you love has a strong central marketplace because that is how cities are meant to function. You don't have to believe me; check tourism data and property values and see for yourself.
When a city starts allowing people to use downtown first-floor commercial space as storage or churches or residences, they begin diluting the glue that holds everyone together. This is the process of pulling apart the fabric of the community and the slow bleed out of the local economy as national chains swoop in to suck up all the money the downtown used to keep. When the downtown fades in relevance, so does the appeal of the community. So does the identity of the community. So does the housing around the downtown. So does self-reliance. So does self-esteem. So does local wealth. So does the job market. So does tourism. Shall I go on?
The central marketplace of a city is too important to mess with. It must remain intact, and cities can and should use their municipal levers to ensure that first-floor space in the downtown remains commercial. The upper floors of the downtown should be used for housing, offices or hotels, or more service-based businesses. That is all well and good and accommodates everyone, but the street-level space must cater to walking traffic. The ground floor must remain a draw and pull people in; otherwise, the heart of a city begins to atrophy, and the whole city declines along with it.
Do you use your living room for storage? No, why not? Do you sleep in the basement? No, wonder why? We have uses in our houses, and we separate those uses into rooms. We understand that in separating the different uses, our houses will be more functional and facilitate the lifestyle we choose.
We don't store boxes in our living room, we don't put beds in the dining room, and we don't put a home gym in the kitchen because these are in the places people convene. This is where a family spends time together; this is where we entertain company. If we changed the uses of those rooms in our house, we would no longer have a place for the family to interact. We would no longer be able to invite friends over. Our relationships would deteriorate. The family would grow apart. We would grow more isolated. Our lives would get worse. Our homes would become sad. We would become sad.
Bedrooms are for sleeping. Downtowns are for commerce. Case closed.
Vacant property kills communities. Vacant and deteriorating property increases crime, depresses property values, diminishes the tax base, lowers community self-esteem, repels potential tenants, investors, and tourists, and breeds rampant apathy. There is absolutely no reason a community should ever suffer from vacant property. Every city and town is afforded by law the ability to dictate what is permissible in terms of what gets built, how property is used, and how it is maintained. We have been bullied for so long by the anti-regulation crowd that we believe we don't have a say; even worse, we have come to sympathize with people that aren't maintaining their property and defend their right not to do so.
READ NEXT WEEK'S HERALD FOR PART 6 "WHERE PEOPLE SEE DOWNTOWN DECLINING FOR DECADES, AND FEEL SAD ABOUT THE PLACE THEY CALL HOME."