Selling Our Downtowns

Posted June 17, 2009, at 7:14 p.m.

In the 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan, playing the owner of a small, independent book store, does battle with Tom Hanks, who plays an executive with a large chain bookstore moving into her neighborhood. Despite her best efforts and those of her loyal customers, the Ryan character fails to save her shop. The day it closes, she finally walks into the megastore around the new corner and sees what she’s been fighting.

Waiting that long to conduct opposition research is one of the mistakes small businesses make in their uphill battle to remain economically viable. That lesson and others emerged at a recent conference on downtowns in Rockland. But anyone who has labored long hours for small profits at a shop in one of Maine’s downtowns knows there often is no time to do that sort of research.

Mike Hurley, a former mayor of Belfast who has run a retail store and restaurant in the Waldo County seat and currently operates a movie theater there with his wife, is passionate about keeping downtowns alive. But he is also realistic about their challenges.

Many recent retirees who have settled in Belfast have told Mr. Hurley they chose the town because of its pretty and diverse downtown. He wonders if they are willing to pay more in their taxes for that downtown. Mr. Hurley suggests the older brick buildings which house businesses could be as-sessed at a different rate to ease their struggles to turn a profit.

Mr. Hurley has urged downtown business owners to work together to coordinate their hours and market themselves as a group, to mixed success. As a point of comparison, he notes that malls have managers to promote them, and to schedule special events like visits with Santa and appearances by sports stars. If they worked together, downtown businesses could use some of the same strategies.

Belfast, like many small Maine cities, has lost factories from its downtown. With those losses, hundreds of people are no longer buying coffee, lunch and perhaps some merchandise on their way into and out of town. Belfast’s high school and then junior high and two elementary schools moved out of the downtown, which also resulted in removing scores of faculty and staff from the daily retail landscape. Mr. Hurley said another lesson that came during the conference was that city services, such as municipal offices and police departments, should remain downtown when possible. Court houses in downtowns also help keep law offices and their staff there.

Parking is a perennial problem in downtowns. Shoppers will circle the block three times rather than park 100 yards from a store they wish to patronize, yet at Wal-Mart, they will willingly park that same distance from the door. The key is to enforce two-hour parking so employees don’t lock up available spaces.

There are few easy answers, but armed with information about what works, downtowns can fight to remain vital.

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