Sunday Small-Business Blues

So this is the first “nice” weekend of spring (after that extra-nasty winter), and we were out and about today like good American consumers, spending money here, and planning to spend money later there. (That IS what we’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Must “stimulate the economy” and all that…)

We were returning from Antioch (’cause who doesn’t like Antioch?) when we passed the Sweetwater Crossing shopping center. Something about it caught our collective eye, so we stopped and took this picture in the middle of a GORGEOUS Sunday afternoon.

Compared to the almost bustling downtown we had just left, and the packed Walmart parking lot we just passed at Monaville Road, things seemed rather… quiet… at this cluster of storefronts.

Busy Sweetwater Crossing commerce on a Sunday afternoon!
Busy Sweetwater Crossing commerce on a Sunday afternoon!

 The Home Depot parking lot across the street was also PACKED, and the roads were filled with cars full of area residents trying to cure the “Cabin Fever” of a very long, arduous winter.

Why so few here? Admitedly not EVERY one of these businesses has Sunday hours, but several do. The cars you see don’t belong to customers; they’re owned by the business owners / employees trying to stay productive while waiting for customers to serve.

100% occupancy at Sweetwater Crossing! That's a GOOD thing... right?
100% occupancy at Sweetwater Crossing! That’s a GOOD thing… right?

 Why is basically no one making use of these local small businesses in particular on a day which seems designed for people to be out shopping, with other shopping venues (“Big Box stores and walkable downtowns) enjoying a steady flow of customers.

Turns out that the “strip mall” format is NOT supportive of small businesses, or at least not many of them. For example, you’re NOT going to just happen to stroll by the eatery there and be drawn-in by the sound of people enjoying themselves at the cozy “Bistro” seating outside, or by the aroma wafting out as you pass. If you’re in this (optimistically-designated) “shopping center” at all, you’re coming in for ONE business, you’ll park directly in front, do your business, and leave.

Unlike a multi-user “downtown” or any other decent shopping/market area, there is no “stickiness” to a strip mall. There is no reason to visit for pleasure, and no reason to stay if something did happen to draw you in. There’s no outside seating, no shade, no public art, no touchable history, no trees/greenery, no ameneties like water fountains, no “gathering place”, no natural “venue” for performers… and certainly no people for which to perform. So nothing to keep you, and very little to draw you in in the first place.

In fact, if local residents DID try to use all that unused space, they’d get booted-away for “Trespassing”, the property manager would be worried about insurance and “incidents” (and lawsuits) on their property, and some business owners would actually (be in left-field enough to) complain that the activity outside their stores is “driving away customers”.

Have you ever heard the expression The bigger a crowd gets, the more people show up for it“? Turns out that one of the best ways to attract people is the presence of OTHER PEOPLE… and THAT simply does not happen in a strip mall!

We have many small businesses of the type which would THRIVE with a storefront right up to the sidewalk, able to tempt passers-by with window displays or the sight of happy customers inside, the tempting smells and sounds emitting from within, seating outside for customers to wait for their friends or just watch the world go by, etc. They WOULD thrive given the proper venue, which RLB unfortunately cannot offer.

Here’s the zany part: From the perspective of the Village, everything is just fine with this situation. There are ZERO VACANCIES on this property, which means every “unit” has a business sign out front, a business occupant with a license, and is paying taxes. After all, what more can be done? The property is zoned for commercial use, and that’s what we’ve got!

Our poor civic infrastructure really does make a significant negative impact on our local business community, not just our residents. Until we can offer an additional type of “place” (a market place, a downtown, or both) for businesses to operate, we place a serious barrier on our ability to have a robust, diversified business community.

If we really want locally-owned, small and start-up businesses, we HAVE to offer them the environment in which they can succeed. If we don’t, we lose those businesses (and their tax revenue) to neighboring communities, and maintain the reputation as not being a great place to start up shop.

This entry was posted in Business, Downtown, Economics, Planning, Resilience, Walkability. Bookmark the permalink.

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