A Mantra Problem

March 10, 2021



The Main Street world has its mantras. These are the cliches we fall back on, to explain away the way things are. Easy go-to phrases that allow us to make sense of what, at times, seems senseless. When I started working as a Main Street manager, these mantras were invaluable. They helped me deal with frustrating or unexplainable aspects of the job. Really, they allowed me to not deal with real problems and just place blame on people’s shortcomings. In time, I realized that these mantras were doing me a disservice, as so often they weren’t even true. They were easy to poke holes through if you only gave it a little bit of thought. It has been immensely beneficial to me personally, and to my career, to no longer take such phrases at face value. Instead, I think a little more critically and see if I can’t come to a better conclusion. There is almost always something more lying beneath the surface.

“It’s not a parking problem, it’s a walking problem” is my favorite Main Street mantra to hate on. At first glance, it would seem that this cliché would fit right in with my troubled relationship with parking. But first, let me provide a little background info. Main Street people are amazing, but they have a tough job to do, and are rarely afforded the resources they need. They put all their love, passion and energy into saving their communities and get little thanks or compensation for it, while their tourism, chamber and economic development counterparts are all well funded. They tireless efforts are complicated by the fact, that often the city they are serving, is working against them.

Bringing life back to downtown is no easy feat. These districts have been disinvested and have been declining for decades. Block after block of buildings sitting empty or underutilized, with little to no maintenance taking place for years. Streets that have been converted to thoroughfares and commerce has shifted to the edge of town. These amazing people that populate the local Main Street organizations do their absolute best to beat back this decline on a shoestring budget. Trying to fill these empty buildings is a monumental task.

This is going to take a bit to explain, but bear with me while I try and make some sense of it all.

The typical downtown has been mistreated. The buildings are falling apart and the public realm has been ignored. Turning it around is a massive challenge. The approach most organizations take in addressing this problem is to try and attract new businesses to the district. Makes sense, but there’s a problem here. Good business owners generally don’t want to go into bad spaces. Your struggling district doesn’t have the storefront a successful entrepreneur wants. No one wants to take their great idea, hard-work and passion, and risk it on a space that is poorly maintained, where the property owner is checked-out and where they are surrounded by blight.

Good business owners are not going to be interested in bad spaces, but someone else is… bad business owners! When the real estate has not been maintained, you have a district that is ripe for bad business owner recruitment. The karate shop, the knickknack store, the weird church. One might think, low lease rates would attract savvy business owners, but it’s quite the opposite. It attracts people that don’t have a business plan, people that don’t want to do the work, people that might not be cut out for entrepreneurship. I’m not saying there isn’t a place in the world for half-ass businesses, but it doesn’t need to be on your main street.

Let’s think about it this way, imagine you had inherited a run-down house from your uncle. You didn’t want to live in it, so you decided to rent it out. You didn’t spend a dime fixing it up and you put it on the market. Considering its condition, you probably listed it for cheap. Do you think the local CEO is going to want to lease your space? No, you are going to attract a tenant that is seeking a lower lease rate. Is this bad? Absolutely not, we just need to be realistic about the way the market works.

The rundown downtown fills up first, with bad businesses. This is just the nature of the marketplace. A Main Street organization is going to be jazzed to see any business open in the downtown, which is understandable. But here is the process that I have seen play out, time and time again. Those businesses struggle to succeed, because they are a weird church and a karate shop and a store selling porcelain dolls. They didn’t have much of a chance. The owners get upset that they aren’t doing more business, so they seek out reasons why. Let the excuses roll.

Come on Main Street peeps. Every single one of you has had a bad business owner blame your office for their lack of sales. They might be open from 3-4:30am every other Tuesday, but YOU are to blame for their poor performance.

Bad business owners aren’t always the most realistic with themselves. They can’t see why their DVD store isn’t doing better, they just know something is off. Well, the king of all culprits is parking. Parking is the go-to bad guy for all things wrong downtown. Business isn’t doing well? Parking. Real estate isn’t selling? Parking. Someone peed in the alley? Parking.

Parking isn’t the reason for anything wrong downtown, but it’s the number one excuse for everything wrong. You have empty or rundown buildings, crumbling sidewalks, weeds in front of city hall, businesses that specialize in used mens socks. There is no reason the downtown should be doing well, while things are in this condition. It has absolutely nothing to do with parking.

You still with me?

Ok, good. So bad business owners start complaining about parking. And for some reason I can’t comprehend, everyone listens to bad business owners. They are the experts in everything. These bad business owners get real loud about parking and the city listens. Eventually meters are removed, more surface lots are identified, maybe some buildings are demolished for more spots. God forbid, a parking deck gets built to solve this imaginary problem. All this money is spent to try and improve business downtown, but nothing gets better. No increase in sales. Nothing. Shocker.

While the community at large may never turn this corner, the Main Street office does. They come to the conclusion that parking isn’t actually the problem. It’s just the downtown bogeyman. A stand-in villain for anything that’s wrong. So here it comes. The new mantra. “We don’t have a parking problem, we have a walking problem.” Meaning, parking isn’t the issue, it’s the lazy bastards that live in our town that are keeping downtown from being more successful.

I guess it’s better than blaming parking, but not by much. I am happy any time anyone realizes that parking isn’t the problem, but blaming laziness is still just a means to avoid the truth. Your hypothetical downtown might just suck. But that’s okay! It should suck. It’s owned mostly by people that live in Florida and don’t care what happens to it. The decorative beds might have badgers living in them by now. Most downtowns struggle to succeed because they are just in poor condition. That is all. The buildings are ugly and sad, the streets are wide and scary, the sidewalks are crusty and crumbling, the businesses are using clip art as signage and get mad when anyone walks in the door and needs attention. It’s not parking and it’s not walking, it’s logic.

Here is how you can be sure it is not a walking problem. People love walking. People go on walks all the time. They walk their dog. They walk themselves. They leave your city and go to other cities where they walk all day long. They drive to the mall and walk all day. They drive to Walmart and walk 3 miles from the parking lot to the sporting goods section to buy a pedometer. People walk! Know when else they walk? Every time your downtown hosts a big event. They park blocks away and walk, or they even walk from their homes. They walk all around your downtown when you give them a reason. First Fridays is a reason, the 4th of July parade is a reason. They come when you provide them with something they want. There is just no proof that people aren’t patronizing your downtown because they are lazy.

Okay, we’ve made it through my outrageously long-winded explanation. Thanks for sticking around. So what does this all mean? It means that we need to use our time more wisely on Main Street. That time wasted worrying about parking, or whining about walking, is time that could have been spent on dealing with the real problems. The longer we avoid addressing the actual issues, the longer the community doesn’t have a healthy heart. It’s more time where the best and brightest feel compelled to move away. More time where people see their downtown and feel sad about the place they call home and feel sad about themselves.

Revitalization isn’t as complicated as we make it. People like nice things. All of them, except maybe the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he perhaps likes mediocre things. Everyone else likes nice things. Everyone is attracted to pretty places and cool shops and groovy restaurants. Everyone enjoys funky walkable neighborhoods and fancy old buildings. People didn’t ditch your downtown because they didn’t want to walk, they ditched it because no one was taking care of it and it made them feel sad.

Stop worrying about parking and walking and focus on making your downtown pretty and pedestrian friendly. Worry about making it nice. There is no shortcut to this. Just like self-improvement or home improvement- it’s simply a matter of putting in the work; it is the same for your downtown. It will take some money and it will take some effort, but the one thing it doesn’t require is a complicated plan. Make improvements to your downtown every single day and simple as that, your downtown is moving in the right direction – again.


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