The Day the Main Street Died

The Day the Main Street Died

I bumped into an old friend. We’ll call her Susan. I hadn’t seen her in probably ten years or more. Both of us were shopping in the home decor aisle at the discount mart. I don’t particularly like shopping here but it’s close to my office downtown. I wanted to find some cute unique pieces to add to our guest room and she was sniffing every single candle on the shelves. The shelves were full of stuff in what seemed like a labyrinth of connecting aisles. Yet, as I lamented to myself, everything seemed bland and tired and quite frankly…cheap. After all, I thought, you get what you pay for.

“Susan”, I said, “are you still living in Anywhereville”? “Is main street still bustling with adorable boutiques and kitschy shops”? “And that amazing sandwich shop with the garden terrace…are they still serving the best roast beef?” Susan says, quite oddly, “I LIVE here in the Metro but I still sleep in Anywhereville”. I literally laughed out loud, “WHAT?” and then asked her to explain.

She explained that she works full time here in Metro City. She gets her groceries here by simply ordering online and scheduling a pick up after work. Her husband works in Metro City too; so they often meet after the work day for a bite to eat or simply grab it to take home. On Fridays they like to catch a movie after a long week or listen to the Jazz musicians playing down in Metro City Park. Saturday mornings she goes to yoga at this new upscale gym out at the big strip mall on the freeway. Sundays are her favorite day, she tells me. While her kids attend soccer practice at the mega sports plaza she gets to spend the day surfing the internet ordering stuff on Temu and Amazon. “Admittedly”, Susan shrugged, “a lot of the internet wares are mass produced and not well-made…but after all…you get what you pay for.”

The overwhelming chemical stench of all the candles must be getting to me. I asked…”Susan do you remember that candle shop in Anywhereville”? I loved that place!! To my surprise she said they closed down a couple years ago. “Everything in Anywhereville has closed”, Susan said, “even the Coffee Cabin and Dairy Treat”. According to Susan, all that is left in Anywhereville is a chain Dollar Dash and a corporate gas station where most the pumps don’t even work. In fact, according to Susan, the city council had to shut down the pool due to overburdening costs. She said they can’t even take their dogs for a walk on the trail because it’s overgrown now and there’s no street lights after dark. “Honestly”, with an almost sadness in her tone, “if the house we live in didn’t belong to my Great Aunt JoJo, we would have sold and moved to Metro City a long time ago.”

I didn’t buy anything in the discount mart. Instead I’ll just swing into the galleria around the corner. It’s locally owned and everything is either handmade or incredibly unique. I gave Susan my card and we traded phone numbers before going our separate ways. As a commercial and residential realtor, I told her I would do some research and see if I had any insight to offer. Property values are higher here in Metro City. However, the property taxes in Metro City are equal to Anywhereville. Just last year the Metro City Board approved a measure to allocate a percentage of the local sales tax to build a new civic center. It passed with overwhelming support. Admission is free and they offer year round art and humanities programs to school age kids. The cost of living might be slightly higher but the quality of living is top tier. Metro City has a strong shopping district with dozens of small businesses and mom and pop shops. There is a wide variety in dining options and a vibrant entertainment scene. Of course, as you already know, you get what you pay for.

Back at my desk and it didn’t take long to deduce the downfall of Anywhereville. Over the past seven years more than fifteen businesses, all privately owned, folded. The little corner market owned by Gary and Sherry couldn’t compete with the Dollar Dash and were forced to lock the doors. The once popular Burger Bar on main street held on as long as they could, but the lack of revenue meant they no longer could pay the help or even keep the lights on. I found their last post on Facebook and it read…’after 30 years of flipping burgers for you, our neighbors and friends, the lack of local support has left us with no option but to close’. Ouch!! I don’t think they meant it as a criticism of the community but simply the reality of the times. The youth soccer program and summer rodeo camps were also terminated. Apparently, as the small businesses began closing their doors, the fundraising support for non-profits ended. What really surprised me most was that Anywhereville is home to three mid-sized companies, employing hundreds of the townspeople. However, given the dwindling property values, folks just aren’t buying. Lastly, to add insult to injury, the Anywhereville High School has been dealing with issues of truancy, rampant bullying, alcohol and drug use. When the locally owned businesses started closing, the part-time jobs for so many high school kids ended too. Between the town pool, the park and dog trail, the soccer league and youth rodeo camps the kids used to have plenty to do with their free time. Those options are gone now. Per another public forum on Facebook post by a “concerned parent” now all the kids do is rot away at video games…or worse.

If there is one thing I know about small towns like Anywhereville…the locally owned small business sector is a fragile ecosystem. The bottom line for the majority of entrepreneurs is razor thin. And while online shopping and big box stores may offer convenience, it is not without consequence. Too often the symbiotic relationship between community and consumer is grossly misunderstood, and when neglected, it can have disastrous results. Discretionary spending is by definition a form of activism. Where consumers spend their money matters. I called up Susan the very next day. "Let me explain", I said...but the only thing I could manage to say was " get what you pay for."

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