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Some ideas about filling up empty storefronts

Michael Boylan's picture

We are a nation of problem-solvers. Left or right, black or white, when presented with problems — at home, work or play — we figure out a solution. Well, we have a problem, and it actually might be numerous problems.

These problems are occurring locally, regionally, nationally and maybe even all over the world. They are 21st century problems and we need to find solutions quickly. The answers might just be big enough to change the world and address more issues than we ever thought it could.

What is the first problem, you ask, hopefully eager to sic your brain on it and solve it like a puzzle. The problem is this ...

We all realize that we have a struggling economy, trying to find its footing, but we don’t know what to fill it with. There is talk of green technologies and industry leading the way, but that doesn’t help us where we see the problem everyday, by which I mean those empty strip malls and storefronts.

Take a drive around the county and count up the number of empty storefronts. After you use all of your fingers and your toes and start using the digits of your partner and your kids, you’ll really understand the beginning of the problem.

There is ample business space for dozens, maybe even hundreds, of businesses, and yet there is nothing to go into these spaces.

My wife and I talk all the time about what would be good to see use those spaces but we don’t have the money to start them up and if we did, there would be no guarantee that they would make enough to maintain them and keep them open.

Take the shopping plaza across from the hospital as an example. A bookstore would seem to be a good fit, but bookstores these days are big boxes and soon (sooner than you think), e-books will take up more of that market. I love places like Omega Books in Peachtree City, but websites like Book Mooch make it easy for me to get rid of my used books and trade them in for new ones.

You may scoff at the idea of e-books taking more than a tiny share of the market, but think of this: There used to be independent record shops and then there were stores at the mall like Sam Goody and Camelot (heck, there used to be shopping malls) and then there was just Best Buy, Target and Walmart.

Go to Best Buy today and look at how their CD selection has shrunk. A section to maybe an aisle or two. Why? iTunes and Amazon sell the music digitally and you put it on your own CDs or, more likely, your iPod or computer.

Bookstores are going to go the same way. It will be a slower decline, but it’s coming.

Computers and the Internet are fantastic. I can’t imagine my life without them and don’t want them to go away, but we have to admit that they have chipped away at a lot of things.

There used to be independent video stores, then there was Blockbuster and a few other chains and now there is Netflix and Redbox and Pay Per View. Something will come after them too.

All of these programs on the computer are incredibly convenient and a lot of people use them — more and more everyday — but we lose a lot of things in the process of progress.

Talking with a friend about the loss of video stores, she stated that the trip to Blockbuster used to be a family excursion. They would enjoy the golf cart ride to the store, the thrill of browsing around for hidden treasures in the aisles and maybe there was also a stop for pizza or ice cream on the way there or back. Now, the movies you want come directly to you, sometimes as soon as you click on a button.

It’s not just computers that give us one-stop shopping and instant gratification. The big box stores and our dependence on them has squeezed out a lot of smaller businesses. It’s no secret and it is, as they say, just business.

If you can get your clothes, groceries, medicine, toys, etc., in one place and it is all the same price or lower than going to five different places, why would you waste your time and go to five different places? You wouldn’t and you didn’t and now we have towns all across the country that are filled with empty shells.

I’m not calling for boycotts against online shopping or big boxes. I like those things too much. The Dead Kennedys titled an album, “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.” That was in the 1980s and things are even more convenient now.

I want to find the next step, though, the solution to what goes in the places where the things we don’t need anymore used to go. More importantly, I want us to find a solution.

There is one thing that you can’t get online: real, live human connection. Yes, I can chat with my cousins or my far-off friends on Facebook, but I still need to go out to get my hair cut. I need to be in front of somebody for that.

That’s all that is really left out there, places where you actually have to be there to get something done: Mechanics to fix your car, spas to get your computer-fatigued shoulders massaged and salons of all types.

While you are out on your drive counting empty storefronts, use someone’s fingers and toes to count hair salons, nail salons and tanning beds. Couple those with gyms and medical facilities and the only thing left, for the most part, are restaurants.

You can order from a lot of places online, but you can’t duplicate the atmosphere with a computer. You can’t create the experience of running into people you have probably not seen a lot of recently in the local restaurant.

That is where I think the solution begins. Not with more dining establishments — Lord knows all we’d do is create more Mexican and Chinese restaurants — but with places where people can get together, face to face, and experience things that can’t be experienced on a screen (even if it is HD and in 3D).

Recently, I’ve heard about some struggles from two local businesses: Fayette Art Center in downtown Fayetteville and Linda’s Playhouse, right on the edge of Peachtree City. There is nothing like them in the area and they offer people a family-friendly place to go and connect with others.

In the case of Linda’s Playhouse, which is a children’s museum, it often provides stay-at-home parents a change of scenery and a place to escape what can often feel very isolating.

Both places are trying to find ways to survive, to find like-minded people who see and understand their vision and can help them keep their doors open and grow. The costs of operating these businesses are high, due mainly to rent and utilities.

Linda’s Playhouse is a non-profit and they do not have a large staff or high-salaried employees. The lights are on, the temperature is controlled and kids have a big house to play in. That’s it.

The reality is their doors, like many others in this time of economic uncertainty, may close.

The question is, what do we do? What can we do about the empty storefronts? How do we help businesses stay open? What kind of businesses can we create that can move into these vacant buildings and be viable enough to not become another casualty? What does a world where more and more can be done at one place or your home look like?

There are no easy answers, and I’m not advocating hand-outs, either. I do think that landlords and property owners need to rethink their idea of what a fair and sensible rent is.

Here’s a hint. If you have a building that has been empty for over a year, your rent isn’t sensible.

Maybe a solution is working with business owners on rents based on a percentage of what they earn over a short period of time, until they are established, and then regular rent with a percentage of profit to pay back the initial investment.

Maybe businesses band together and share a space so that the expenses are shared equally. Maybe organizations band together and have their members make a commitment to support their fellow members and their companies.

Ultimately, what needs to be created are destinations for people, some place to bring them out of the house, even for a little while. It’s one thing that you can’t get with a click of a button and something that even the best greeter at Walmart can’t always provide.

It won’t be done overnight, but once it gets started, once a few places take root, it won’t take long.

I think of what a Linda’s Playhouse in downtown Fayetteville might have done for the candy shop that closed.

I imagine a diner taking up that long-vacant restaurant space on the corner, just a breakfast and lunch place, and a newsstand with all of the national and international newspapers and magazines next door.

Maybe the building that was scorched in a fire a few years ago gets turned into a small cafe or club. It doesn’t take much space to create a black box theater and there are plenty of musicians, actors and more to fill it up.

Computers create sedentary lifestyles. I know of what I speak. I am in front of a screen all day and sometimes at night when I’m working on a project. Getting out and getting some exercise and fresh air is important.

I can also sympathize with people who feel disconnected from others, who do a lot of chatting online, texting and emailing but very little talking and connecting.

In each of these ghost-like plazas, there should be some place where people can just go and find something to do or someone to talk to. Not just another coffee house or tavern, although you could use one Fayetteville, but a gathering place of sorts.

I promise that if the rent was right and the right people were behind it, there would often be something interesting going on.

It just has to have free wi-fi.


jpopeye's picture

I'm with you on this issue. Somehow we need to make the first choice your most local merchant. That might spread the market and keep these storefronts open. I'm guessing about half of the population in my town commutes away for most of the day.

I read this article twice (above)and I still don't know what he said!

His idea that bookstores would soon be gone has already happened 90%. There are only a few big boxes left who are surviving on borrowed money and even less private bookstores. He likes Omega Books here but doesn't buy their used books apparently!

First, we built way too many storefronts, financed with easy credit and run by hired help.
The storefronts left open now are suffering from too little purchases due to the recession and poor stocking.
It is not secret that if half of the 15,000,000 unemployed were working at well paying jobs, they would buy from these stores and the stores would stock-up for them!

So work for the people is the problem. In any case there will always be too many storefronts due to having to modernize elsewhere and leave the old ones. These dental, doctors, and pilots investments in commercial ventures reached a zenith and won't be successful again until work is plentiful.

Believe me simple places where one can relax with WiFi or whatever do not pay the rent and utilities, much less salaries. Starbucks is on wobbly legs. Owe much more than they are worth.

Jobs in the past have usually come either from wars, borrowed money (same thing), or flashes in the pan that are temporary such as the communications expansion of the 80-90s. Most of which is made in the Orient, not here.

I'm not suggesting that we open more coal mines or process more uranium to create jobs, but there are many innovations yet to be explored which could do so.
We need trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure such as roads, dams, power generation facilities, bridges, re-foresting, clean up of dumps and re-building foreclosed structures.
That can be done two ways: on borrowed money from overseas; or, sell bonds to USA citizens who can participate.

Even good local newspapers could again flourish if they were Independently organized. Calling all things as they are and not dreaming.

Store fronts is the least of our problems now but it did waste a lot of money. Owners must run such things---not dentists.

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