Updated: Nov 5, 2018
As a kid growing up in Greenville, SC in the 80's I remember when the city got an Applebee's and what a big deal it was. That was my first memory of a national chain having a psychic impact on a community as well as an economic impact. Applebee's opening was on the local news, kids talked about it at school, it was a big deal. At the time Greenville was a struggling city that had once been a textile hub but had fallen on very hard times. All that has changed over the last twenty years and I am not going to rehash the incredible success the city has had and how it has become the poster child for downtown redevelopment, but back in the 80's and even through the early 90's all shopping and restaurant experiences were found well outside of downtown. For most small to mid-size American communities this story got played out over and over again. The idea of going downtown was foreign. The idea of even caring if a city had a vibrant downtown was just as strange. I mean, we got an Applebee's what more do you want? It turns out, what we want changes fairly often, what it takes to sustain a city remains fairly constant.
Most mid-market and small towns are at least some distance off of an interstate or other major trafficked roadway. The distance between those major roads and the downtown communities can make all the difference between those revitalization efforts succeeding or failing. If a downtown is the heart of a city then the main artery in and out of that heart is far too often clogged with closed or failing businesses, dilapidated homes, and an overall visually unappealing landscape. The gateway into a vibrant downtown must be just as inviting as the town itself. Visitors will only venture so far down an unappealing road before turning back, and even if they make it to the town the great experience they have is wiped away by the depression they see as they make their way back out to the main road.
Using new retail development as a tool to kick-start the redevelopment of a cities gateway is just one way that national big-box retail can be a vital part of American towns. Cities must use every tool available to create an inviting entrance into the city center, encouraging and facilitating new retail along major highways and interstates is a huge tool for cleaning out those major artery's.
When new development finally arrives it is just as important to maintain that momentum and have plans in place to push the growth back toward town. As with all older corridors, there will always be obstacles in the way of improvement. Those obstacles must be identified well in advance and a plan put in place for how to deal with them when the time comes. I plan to go into detail about how to identify and deal with these obstacles in a later post.
Revitalizing a four or five-mile stretch of road from the interstate into a downtown takes a very long time. The distance to cover and the problems in-between those distances can seem overwhelming, but if a downtown's rebirth is going to be anything other than short-lived the major artery into the heart must be clean. The money, excitement, traffic and just plain newness of a national retail development along a major roadway is the best way to jump-start that process.
There are several other economic and socioeconomic reasons big national retail is vital to a community but tying a downtown back into the world at large is perhaps the most important.