Posted by: nickgerlich | April 7, 2008

Future Perfect?

It is a recurring theme. Nearly every small city with an all-but-dead town square would dreams of seeing it revived. Even a lot of big cities wrestle with this, but it seems that it is mostly the sleepy little towns with a pleasant past but foggy future who are trying to find their way home.

CanyonCanyon TX is no different. Today’s Amarillo Globe-News featured a story about how local officials have big dreams for our beloved square. Wouldn’t it be nice if people came downtown first? Sure, everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to City Hall wants this to happen.

But this is going to be increasingly difficult to pull off.

Over Spring Break I was in my normal “March home,” Fredericksburg TX. Nearly every small city in Texas yearns to be like Fredericksburg, a German settlement of about 9000 people nestled in the middle of Texas Hill Country. Hardly a weekend goes by in which the town isn’t filled with tourists.

And there isn’t a beach or amusement park for miles.

So what is it that attract people to Fredericksburg? And for that matter, is Wal-Mart truly to blame for everyone else’s problems, as the article today implied?

To answer the first question: Uniqueness. And to answer the second: No. A resounding N-O.

Fredericsburg has a historic downtown Main Street area lined with 150-year-old stone structures housing boutiques, gifts, old books, antiques, and even a brewery. There’s no Starbucks to be found, and even the Chili’s went out of business. Sure, there’s the stately new Wal-Mart Supercenter on the eastern edge of town, but by and large, this is a homegrown community with homegrown businesses that have discovered how to prosper in the shadow of the Arkansas giant.

We must remember, though, that Sam Walton had his start on the square in small-town Arkansas, so it is not fair to blame him for anyone else’s problems. Everyone had the same chance, and could have had the same vision.

The future of our small towns is not in trying to duplicate Fredericksburg, but rather to be inspired by it. Each small town must develop a mix that is distinctly local, with a look and feel that is not a Xerox of someone else.

Who can blame Sam Walton for building his stores on the edge of town? That’s where the people moved to in the years following WWII. It made perfect sense. And no one can argue that convenience isn’t a major determinant in where people shop today for their necessities.

But it is the out-of-the-ordinary stuff that makes Fredericksburg or any other center city area suddenly develop magnetic qualities. Sure, I often joke about the goods available in Fredericksburg, because my cycling clients who visit there wonder what the appeal is. I tell them the stores sell mostly “stuff you don’t need…but want anyway.”

And therein lies the difference. Wal-Mart sells stuff we need, and specialty stores cater to our wants. While sales of discretionary items may take a beating during a down economy, this simple truth should be the driver for cities trying to re-imagine themselves for the long haul.

It may not be perfect, but there’s no future in denying the present or trying to replicate the past.

Dr “Here’s Hoping…” Gerlich

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