Saturday, November 13, 2010

In the clear morning light

It is one of those mornings you get in the fall; the ground is dusted with frost, the sunlight is a flat white, and the normally riotous colors of the leaves is muted and dark.  I love these mornings.  The crisp air is invigorating, but it makes me turn inward a bit becoming more contemplative.

Now that I have set the tone, I need to share the object of my contemplation with you.  When Golden and I first moved to Lenoir in 2002, the first thing we did was walk downtown to check out what we thought would be the heart of our new town.  It was empty.  Storefronts were mostly shuttered with broken windows and "For Rent" signs.  There was a bakery and a wig shop.  Golden burst into tears, turned to me and said, "What the hell have you done to us?"

We moved here from Flagstaff, AZ.  Flag' has a thriving, bustling downtown.  It is the place to go and shop, to eat, to hang out, to meet up with friends and the commerce is active from morning through the night.  It is the beating heart of the town, filled with locally owned businesses that give the town its uniqueness, its character.  I put forth for your consideration that this is the function of a healthy downtown.  As you move away from the high speed thoroughfares with their collections of fast food restaurants and chain stores clinging to the asphalt ribbon like a remora to a shark, you shift from the generic blandness that is found in Anywhere, USA to a truer expression of the place you are in.  Local color, flavor and flair are what differentiates us from everywhere else.  Honestly, how different is McWendArbees going to be from town to town?

Lenoir's downtown has come a long way in a short time.  Beginning with the original revitalization efforts of Keith Willis and Chuck Luddeke who, no longer content to wait for the city to figure out how to bring the near dead downtown back to life, began buying and renovating buildings for retail occupation over 5 years ago.  We owe a lot to these guys.  They broke the mold of the rapacious landlord by trying to help businesses get started with reasonable lease terms and the opportunity to put sweat equity into a renovation project in order to reduce a start-up's up-front costs.

The key ingredient to all of this is you.  Your spending habits and purchase decisions are the life and death of locally owned businesses.  Large chain retailers are motivated by a corporate balance sheet and when they business algebra works out to a negative answer, those corporations will shutter and move on to the next town.  You can see the large abandoned corpses of these businesses in every half empty strip mall and darkened mall hulk that looms in towns around the country.  But while chain stores abandon towns when the going gets tough, locally owned businesses try to gut it out, clawing for their very survival.  It is this tenuous situation that downtown Lenoir is in right now.

As we come up on Black Friday, I implore you to participate in Small Business Saturday the very next day.  I'm not saying "Come buy a bike from me!" (although, I'm not gonna fight you if you do ;).  No, I'm hoping you will come stroll through your downtown, checking out all of the shops and restaurants that are working hard to give our town character and vitality.  I'd rather spend money with a local business that looks me in the eye and genuinely thanks me for my business than hear about how my purchases added a few dollars to a windfall of millions for chain retailers and their stockholders on the Monday news.
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