What Happened To Downtown

By Jon A. Brake

If you are over the age of fifty you have memories and images of what a downtown should be like.

Saturday night was special. Folks drove from miles around to take the children to the movie and to park downtown to do business and talk to friends. Saturday night was a time to get groceries for the week, take clothes to the cleaners and look for furniture.

Saturday night was special. All of the stores stayed open until 10:00 or 11:00, some even stayed open until the last customer was out the door.

Downtown was special too. Downtown, any downtown in American was the business center of town. People could walk for blocks in any direction and shop or just talk to friends.

What happened to downtown? Many things happened to downtown. First of all it was not Wal-Mart that turned most downtowns into a service orientated center. Automobiles and Television were the two downtown busters. Yes, the auto had been around for years but improvements to the car and to the roads meant that farm families could come to town almost anytime they wanted. Grocery shopping could take place Monday thru Friday and downtown was changed forever.

Television also changed the family and the way they shopped and conducted business. In the late Ď40ís and early Ď50ís most TV stations did not come on until 5:00 or 6:00. Many of the best TV shows were aired on Saturday night. It did not take long before Saturday night shopping was moved to Thursday night in an attempt to save it.

Fast forward to today. Why has downtown changed? Most downtown buildings have 25 to 50 foot store fronts. It is hard to put enough retail merchandise into a 25 to 50 foot wide store to bring customers from a countywide area. A store with only three to five parking stalls must rely on others methods of selling to make a living.

In Manhattan several downtown stores rely on the phones and salespeople to increase sales. Walk-in business is a thing of the past.

What about Wal-Mart and other "Big Box" super centers? Wal-Mart takes a lot of hits for destroying downtown American, but look at what has happed. Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target and other large stores generate business by putting hundreds of parking stalls in front of the business. The stores are 200,000 sq. ft. in size and they can stack items 15 to 20 feet high. Some "clubs" even go higher than that.

In 1981 or 82 the Mayor of Washington, Ks was told that Wal-Mart would come to any county seat town that would build them a store. The Mayor responded with: "We donít want Wal-Mart. If you will watch anywhere Wal-Mart goes the downtown area is destroyed." That is the perception of many civic leaders. "Wal-Mart will destroy downtown."

If that perception is correct then any town without a Wal-Mart should have a thriving downtown. That is not the case. And, if you will go back to Washington, Ks, they do not have a Wal-Mart and the downtown area has lost most of their businesses.

Downtowns have not been destroyed by big box businesses; it has changed like Saturday night has changed. Downtowns will survive, they will be different, but they will survive.

What about "saving downtown" by blocking the front of each store by a big beautiful tree or making main street into a walking path for shoppers? That as they say is another story.