Monday, May 20, 2013

Main Street geniuses and the chain of fools.

By now I’ve explored the visible evidence of main street reinvestment numerous times, through streetscape enhancements, creative infill development, improved access for wheelchairs, vintage iconography, or the preservation of the historic building façade at the expense of everything behind it (pejoratively called façadectomy).  Across the country, in towns both small and microscopic, palpable evidence reveals communities that are vigorously trying to address the decades-long economic malaise of their historic centers.  Predictably, the success of these initiatives has been spotty.  A particularly simplistic but not entirely inaccurate speculation for this inconsistency is that supply exceeds demand; we simply have too many municipalities with marginally surviving main streets to meet the demand for vibrant centers of commerce.  This supply-demand dichotomy extends temporally to contemporary popular retail typologies: more succinctly, we have too many strip malls and shopping centers to house retail just as comfortably, if not more so, and they offer enough amenities (mostly catering to cars) to the consumer that it remains hard for old main streets to compete.  The truly flourishing small downtowns have capitalized on “authenticity”, a word a deliberately framed in quotes because of its inherent artificiality.  Modern strip malls are no more or less authentic than historic main streets, but they tap into nostalgia that, through an inversion of taste cultures (coupled with the paucity of genuinely successful old main streets) makes them appear aesthetically superior to generic, ubiquitous, automobile-oriented strip malls in the eyes of many.  Maybe someday a new retail typology will replace strip malls—my suspicions is that it will be of the point-and-click variety—and the inevitable demolition of the most obsolete shopping centers will render the few flourishing survivors into a sort of vintage curiosity.  But we ain’t there yet.

In the meantime, main streets that achieve the rare combination of an attractive veneer and low vacancy rates still avert the eyes.  Maybe my standards aren’t so lofty, but Jefferson City’s East High Street appears to be one of them.

An unusually small municipality for a fairly populous state (barely 43,000 people), the capital of Missouri seems to have checked off most of the requisite boxes one might associate with main street revitalization. 

It’s got abundant benches, vintage streetlights (complete with floral arrangements suspended from them), landscaping that undoubtedly doubles as stormwater management, and wheelchair-friendly pedestrian crossings.  It all looks impeccable; the design team conceived it with a great deal of diligence and care.  My research suggests that the key player is Downtown Jefferson City, a volunteer association with modest annual membership dues for all the businesses that line East High Street, assisting them in promotion of the downtown and the planning of key events.  Although not necessarily the wallet to implement the costliest of these initiatives, this agency certainly seems to be the thinking cap.

Since these photos comprised my one and only visit to Jefferson City, I have no basis of comparing the main street in the fall of 2012 with its condition at a prior point.  It’s hard for me to judge if the investment on aesthetic upgrades has yielded a return.  At any rate, it doesn’t seem to be making the conditions worse.  As far as I can tell, the 2.5 block commercial corridor was over 90% occupied. 

Not only are virtually all the retail spaces leased, but, in contrast to so many other American main streets, Jefferson City lacks many significant “gaps in the teeth”—spaces where one of the contiguous old commercial buildings faced a demolition team.  The pic below shows about the only one that I could find.

My conversations with one of the storefront entrepreneurs, a frozen yogurt business owner, revealed that nearly all the improvements have taken place within the past two or three years, which is exactly as it appeared.  East High Street’s revival is nascent and still very fragile.

One tenant in particular, however, gives the corridor a better-than-average prospect at long-term survival:

That’s right: it’s the rapidly-growing sandwich chain from Champaign, Illinois—one of the most franchise-dependent major brands in the business.  Such an establishment may seem unremarkable for a small-town main street, especially one so close to a state capital that houses hundreds of daytime workers who demand lunchtime options nearby.  But Jimmy John’s is not a common occupant of 19th century downtown commercial buildings in small cities.  Long a staple of the college scene (where it might occupy a traditional pedestrian oriented storefront), the meteoric growth of this chain in recent years depends heavily these days on suburban locations in strip malls or freestanding drive-thrus.  It tends to populate areas that are middle class or higher, in contrast with McDonald’s or Burger King, two chains that will select a location regardless of its income density—or, Church’s Chicken, which almost exclusively seeks locations with below-average median incomes.  I have my strong suspicion that this Jimmy John’s leased this storefront for two primary reasons: Downtown Jefferson City recruited the franchise owner heavily (perhaps even through incentives), and this same franchisee determined that foot traffic along the main street was good enough allow for profitability, even good enough to sacrifice any possibility of integrating a drive-thru window into the operation.

At any rate, Jimmy John’s is virtually alone among national brands on East High Street, and it’s the only chain restaurant that I could find.  But it’s a major boost for Jefferson City—an indication of the franchisee’s confidence that downtown denizens could sustain his or her business, which, as a national brand with particular operating costs and licensing fees, undoubtedly must contend with far greater expenses than the locally owned operations nearby.  To an extent, the celebrating of a Jimmy John’s means we must throw conventional main street revitalization out the window: while the ambition of many main street boosters is to attract an eclectic downtown mix of varied local entrepreneurs, such tenants rarely flourish exclusively without the presence of a familiar logo to serve as a relative anchor.  Mom-and-pops simply lack the equity to weather very many periods of slow business, and thus they come and go routinely.

I’m thrilled for Jefferson City that it seems to support an independent bookstore, even in an era of escalating e-reader encroachment.  But will the bookstore last through the implementation of a five-year business development plan?  It might not matter.  From what I could tell, downtown Jefferson City boasts the aforementioned sandwich chain and a Hallmark Gold Crown, which amounts to two more national brands than the average struggling small-town main street can claim.

So has East High Street reached its commercial apex?  Probably not.  As the pictures indicate, the on-street parking spaces appear mostly full—no doubt boosted by Downtown Jefferson City’s removal of the meters to allow 90 minutes free.  But the street wasn’t exactly teeming with shoppers.  I saw practically none on this weekday late afternoon.  The business association’s aspirations for the main street appear formidable, judging from the website’s use of phrases like “prominent destination”, “thriving”, and “the place to be”, which even the most optimistic person would confess comes across as hyperbole.  But virtually all evidence suggests this member-supported agency has nursed its vision incrementally, potentially meeting even some of the second-tier goals.  For example, numerous American main street associations concern themselves primarily with impeding demolition and activating the first-floor storefronts, while the upper levels continue to languish.  During my visit, Jefferson City’s main street not only boasted a near-perfect occupancy rate at the street level, the second and third floors seemed occupied as well.

If these upper floors are still vacant, Downtown Jefferson City has taken enough care to keep them looking occupied through well-maintained curtains and blinds.  The one obvious deficiency that stood out to me was the occasional surviving mid-century sheath, no doubt installed back in the day to conceal the fact that downtown’s buildings appeared old, obsolete, and increasingly in disrepair.  Sometimes these 1950s-era false façades are fantastic looking on their own terms, as I pointed out with some winsome examples in south Louisiana.  But it would be hard to fall in love with the ugly, uninspired cosmetic work performed on a few of Jefferson City’s buildings, like the ones below:

My suspicion is that at least a few of Jefferson City’s biggest downtown boosters envision a main street filled with al fresco cafés, specialty boutiques, lively upmarket bars, and enough crowds to attract street performers.  Maybe even mimes.  Certainly the incomes in this small city are high enough to support more than the two or three low-key bars/restaurants that I could spot along East High Street.  And maybe someday the activity downtown will escalate to the point that wine bars, art galleries and brasseries really do dominate the landscape.  But obviously this ambition seems a bit fanciful, and it’s not because Jefferson City is failing—by most metrics, it’s doing quite well.  However, the current conditions perfectly capture the timeworn phrase “never let perfect be the enemy of the good”.  I don’t want to tell the leadership of this handsome state capital to lower its aspirations, but it must recognize that the fact that virtually all of the historic buildings are in good condition, occupied, and adjacent to a perfectly manicured streetscape places Jefferson City among the top quintile of downtowns for American cities of its size.

My sad suspicion is that, even as the occasional well-preserved main street does live up to flowery phrases the website embraces, most are not and never will again be “thriving” or a real “destination”.  Those thriving main streets aren’t exactly places for run-of-the-mill, mundane shopping; they are destinations that eloquently trigger nostalgia by evoking a time when our city centers really were the center of commerce, recalling the blatantly artificial references to “authenticity” that I noted earlier.  It’s all veneer.  Nostalgia denotes ambiance, and ambiances fuels the leisure consumption patterns of an emergent class that uses its disposable income for artisan pottery, craft beers, and expensive pommes frites.  It is unrealistic to expect that many, or even most, of our main streets will ever propel themselves into upper-tier commodification.  The supply outpaces the demand.

Jefferson City’s challenges are multifaceted: it remains one of only five state capitals that receive no direct access from the Interstate Highway System.  Meanwhile, the toddlin’ town of Columbia, Missouri—home of the University of Missouri (“Mizzou”)—sits just 30 miles to the north of Jefferson City.  Not only can it boast a huge captive student population of 35,000—fostering lively downtown activity because such colleges typically concentrate a large population who generally do not own cars—but Columbia’s city limits stretch directly into the path of I-70.  It’s also nearly three times as populous as Jefferson City.  I suspect many government workers at the state capital commute from Columbia.  Can the mostly rural purlieus of central Missouri support two eclectic downtowns within a 25-minute drive?

Let the presence of the Jimmy John’s serve as the answer to this question.  Like tiny Frankfort, capital of Kentucky, Jefferson City’s primary reason for being is to foster the administration and operation of state government services.  Beyond this function, the city’s ability to assert its distinctiveness—or for its downtown to compete with Columbia’s—will prove a colossal challenge.  While this task isn’t insurmountable, it exposes the need for Downtown Jefferson City and other civic boosters to take pride in the minor victories.

If East High Street never attracts another chain restaurant, that’s okay—in fact, it might be good for building a profile of a place that really can support the “unique discovery of old shops intermixed with new finds” it proclaims on the website.  And if it gets a few more chains, that’s fine too—it reaffirms the ability for these historic buildings to attract tenants with greater capital.  And, even though I have never been to Columbia, I’d be willing to bet the farm it has more tawdry bars and chain restaurants in its downtown—perhaps even two Jimmy John’s.


ardecila said...

It's possible that Jimmy John's was recruited heavily, but my hypothesis is different: Jimmy John's, like Subway and Dunkin Donuts, has a very loose set of requirements for franchise locations. This enables them to move into spaces that other chains might consider marginal. Subway and Dunkin have opened in lots of unusual, unique and "deficient" locations: subway stations, two-story urban spaces where each floor is a sliver, and yes, neighborhood business districts where parking and drive-thrus are difficult or impossible.

My guess is that an enterprising Jefferson City businessman purchased the franchise himself to help enliven the shopping district.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the comment, Ardecila. You're probably onto something. It wouldn't be surprising if that "enterprising Jefferson City businessman" is also a board member of Downtown Jefferson City.

The one thing that distinguishes this Jimmy John's is that it sits in a small city with virtually no other chain presence downtown--not even a McDonald's that I can recall. While it is commonplace for franchisees to take urban locations in larger, more reliable cities (Indy has a Jimmy John's downtown, and I'm sure STL or KCMO have one as well--or something similar), most franchise owners are unwilling to take the risk in smaller cities, where operational costs are only marginally lower but foot traffic and income density is significantly less.

I can't help but think of the time in 2010 when I was driving through Miami, OK, through a main street that was clearly "aspiring"--most of the storefronts were occupied, and one even had a Quizno's, the town's signature chain. Chances are that Quizno's is now gone, since the company is seriously struggling, but it was a testament to the community's conscious effort to recruit businesses back to the historic commercial corridor.

Jeffrey Jakucyk said...

That Jimmy John's reminds me of a completely random Subway in a nice old building at the bombed-out edge of Franklin, Ohio's downtown. It's the only traditional building left along that street, so it's very striking. Probably a similar situation with an enterprising franchise owner needing a use for their building.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the message, Jeffrey. I had to look up where Franklin is; the economics of the area don't explain why it's so "bombed out", but I guess that happened in even the more prosperous places. As ardecila noted, Subway restaurants are particularly versatile--perhaps more than any of the others. They routinely occupy a tiny footprint, sometimes only allowing for seating for a half dozen people, or even none at all. And you have a good point: the building owner could very well be the franchisee, possibly using the equity of the building as leverage?

Jeffrey Jakucyk said...

Most of the Miami Valley communities between Cincinnati and Dayton have a history of being fairly well off early industrial and agricultural communities. The farming in the Miami valley is quite good compared to the more leached out soils farther east, and with flat river floodplains they were a natural location for transit routes, first by canal then railroad. Like Dayton and to a lesser extent Cincinnati, they were hit by a lot of the same problems as many rust belt cities.

That said, a lot of these towns and small cities also went all-in on the suburban expansion paradigm. Many allowed or encouraged the replacement of their downtown cores with automobile-oriented development, while chasing more that that sort of stuff to the east to be closer to I-75. It's the usual sad story.

Anonymous said...

There was a Taco Bell on East High for a number of years in the 1990s. It was even more strange than the Jimmy John's. The lunch crowd from the nearby state capitol and office buildings are the primary source of foot traffic. Other locals don't spend much time in the area, at least in my experience.

I loved growing up with this downtown. Most of the businesses in your pictures were there well before this "revitalization." I can't thank you enough for recognizing this extremely fortunate neighborhood for what it is. I only hope that it isn't killed through kindness. Some geniuses wanted to add a streetcar recently, and I suspect they will try again soon.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for your comment! I think your last sentence of your first paragraph neatly sums it up: who else, even among locals, goes to the main street if they don't have direct business in the area? Downtown Jefferson City clearly has a challenge in branding High Street as a destination, but fortunately it seems like the agency is more than up to the challenge.

I suspected, judging from the age of the signage, that many of the businesses had indeed been there for quite some time. Good know the main street has a few institutions.

jojessica said...

Hi American Dirt, I work for the local paper in Jefferson City and was wondering if you would mind talking to me about your observations of our downtown. Please give me a call at 573-761-0242 or email me to set up a time to chat,
Thanks so much.