By Steve Zind
A piece by Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council titled “Are Main Streets A Thing Of The Past? Is That OK? has prompted some discussion among people concerned with the vitality of downtowns.
Benfield observes that, “a lot of once-thriving, literal Main Streets are now dead or hanging by a thread. In some cases you can say the same about the towns they inhabit…”
That’s not necessarily news, but Benfield says perhaps we need to accept that Main Street is a thing of the past, “something that used to be, much more than something that is….Even the Main Streets that are relatively healthy today evoke the past, not the present.”
He goes on to suggest that the concept a village center with a mix of businesses that serve locals is as out- dated as the horse and buggy: “Maybe we no longer need a barbershop next to a children’s clothing store next to an insurance office…”
The striking photographs by Sandy Sorlein catalog a succession of town centers, many of which have an abandoned quality. These look very different from many in Vermont, where there’s often a mix of businesses and a sense that they remain central to local life.
There are probably many reasons why a lot Vermont town centers seem to be doing much better than those in the photos: The presence of active local governments and organizations working to preserve downtowns, as well as policies that discourage sprawl.
Other reasons aren’t the result of conscious planning. Our generally low population density isn’t an attraction to large national chains, many of which have no presence in Vermont. In places like Williston they haven’t decimated nearby town centers.
There may also be less tangible factors, too, for example an increasing cultural mindset that supporting local businesses is important.
The economic winds haven’t shifted as dramatically here as they have elsewhere, where the fate of a community could rise or fall with the fortunes of a single employer or industry.
But demographic trends and population shifts may threaten the future of our small town centers. There are also concerns about an influx of smaller box stores and their impact on local businesses.
In some cases new models are being found to preserve local businesses.
For example, local non-profit organizations are taking over village general stores, like the one in Barnard. Cooperatives are being established to try and ensure the survival of other businesses deemed important to town centers – like the Playhouse Theater in Randolph.
We don’t know yet how sustainable these approaches are or how often they can be used.
Nor do we know if ‘buy local” will be enough to ensure the survival of town centers – or whether its being preached more than practiced. I remember a conversation I had with Kim Furlong, a former co-owner of the Barnard General Store, as she and her partner prepared to close the store after 180 years of continuous operation.
“ I think that the reality of keeping it local, keeping money moving through your community isn’t really understood,” she said. “That $5.00 they spend is so important. It doesn’t have to be $50, it doesn’t have to be $100. That $5.00 goes a long way.”
On a recent road trip through West Texas, I was struck by the many small towns with broad main streets lined with attractive buildings whose architecture recalled a past heyday. Today, like the one pictured here, they are eerily vacant.