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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 3, NO. 3 -- APRIL/MAY 2001
 

Main Street U.S.A.

By Kathy Janus

Technology is a two-edged sword. As we develop and become more dependent on our cars, our appliances, our computers, we also become more isolated. Nothing could exemplify this better than the changes in our shopping habits. As early as the 1920s, an interest in larger, more inclusive grocery stores became prominent. National chains such as Safeway, which includes smaller chains such as Vons in California and Dominick's in Chicago, began to sprout up everywhere. Larger stores were able to merge with smaller ones and eventually create large corporations. Even during the Depression, these businesses were able to emerge relatively unscathed due to their size and ability to adapt.

As housing developers began to push suburbia further and further from the cities, the big stores followed. Often acting as anchor stores for many service-oriented malls, these supermarkets are able to draw from many areas outside the immediate region. Such corporations try to increase their community involvement with environmental initiatives and significant charitable donations, yet the human aspect was being lost. No one knew whom he or she was buying from or selling to. There was no one to go to for advice on the best product for a particular need. Very little loyalty and trust existed between the consumer and the retailer.

The emergence of the new urbanism design philosophy began to put the large conglomerates to the test. People were trying to rethink their feelings on neighborhoods. Maybe the pre-WWII developments where families and friends lived in more compact, more interactive locales were better at increasing that lost sense of togetherness. People began to see the benefits of a walking community where central areas were established as gathering places for both social interaction and commerce. Folks could know each other better and, perhaps, do their bartering with a neighbor rather than a corporation.

A Step Back to Simpler Times

Even as urban neighborhoods are being renovated with the influx of upper and middle class income families, there is a trend towards reestablishment of the older city streets. Smaller stores are returning and being supported by the close community. Within each area, a development of unique, individual cultures is emerging. Retail is, once again, beginning to cater to the people.

New urbanism is taking this concept and applying it to traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs). With the emphasis on mixed-use, walking communities, the idea of the corner grocery store is returning. Often, these stores are located within groupings of businesses in a market district rather than standing alone on a street. The draw of one business may be the survival factor for another. Easily accessible to young and old, they have both a functional and spiritual purpose. A quick cup of coffee in the morning or a quart of milk at night may mean a chance meeting with a neighbor or an exchange of local gossip with the shopkeeper. These are the things that keep a community alive.

The Learning Experience

The difficulty, as noted by Robert Gibbs of the Gibbs Planning Group in an interview with New Urban News, is that these businesses must still follow the fundamental rules of business for parking, market demand, visibility, signage and layout. Without these basic principles, the risks for these investors are great. According to Mr. Gibbs, "Retail developers must be flexible to change and to learn."

Jane Grabowski-Miller of Middleton Hills, a TND in Madison, Wis., is very much aware of the need to be flexible in the design of the corner store. "Success of these small businesses is so tricky," she said. At the start of the town's commercial development, about one year ago, a grocery store was established in the town center. With so few homes built and occupied, the store had difficulty keeping perishable foods fresh. Profits dwindled and, despite being subsidized by the builder, the venture was failing. Recently, a woman with experience running a café saw a wonderful opportunity and bought out the owner. The Café/Bakery has been wonderfully successful says Grabowski-Miller. The neighbors are happy that they now have a pleasant place to meet, sit and chat.

One of the most pressing questions for developers is where to place a corner store. Main drag or within the confines of the neighborhood. Either case will be a challenge, but which will be more likely to succeed? Gibbs research indicates that it takes 400 households of mid-to-high income to support a 1,500 to 2,000-square feet grocery. Without car traffic, is this goal possible?

Shortly after the first homes went up in Belmont Forest (renamed Belmont Greene when taken over by another developer) in Ashburn, Va., a freestanding store, Cathy's Market, was built. Located on a pretty village green, the red clapboard building with its wide windows and sunny porch was unable to produce sufficient income to stay open. The neighborhood was new, still very small, and the store was tucked away from the main thoroughfare. Now a residence, there are no plans to reopen.

According to Jim Earnhardt, project manager of Southern Village in Chapel Hill, N.C., the market there was built within the neighborhood along with the first houses and was subsidized by the developer. Despite increased business as the village expanded, volume was still not sufficient to keep going. Owners came and went. The site is now on its fifth business, each a little different from the last. According to Earnhardt, "We knew it had to evolve to something else to survive." A small café opened on the site in May 2001. Serving light breakfast fare and full lunch and dinner, it is doing well and is expected to flourish.

The question to subsidize or not is a source of great controversy. Should the developer, who sees the philosophical need for the market to promote the TND concept, help out the owner? Many proprietors say yes, if only in decreased rents. Embarking on a new business venture is difficult enough, but when it is started in a newly established area, it is almost impossible. However, Robert Gibbs, comments in New Urban News, "I don't like the idea of paying people to pretend that they are selling things. I think that's very counterproductive."

The Success Stories


When Bev and Phil Waggoner drove through Beaufort, S.C., they knew they had found their place. Living in chilly Minnesota, Bev had been in the retail business for several years, and Phil was in advertising. Their son was grown and they were looking for a place, not to retire to, but in which to be "repotted." After speaking with Vince Graham, the developer of Newpoint, a seed of an idea began to grow.

As a young girl, Waggoner often drove through the Midwest with her father, a salesman. "I just loved visiting the small towns and general stores along his route," said Waggoner. Newpoint, a new traditional neighborhood , reminded her of the towns she visited from her youth. Together, the Waggoners and the developer began to build the two, two-story structures that would house the commercial district. Newpoint Corners Store opened for business in April 2000, and Waggoner soon learned that working in retail and imagining having your own place were very different from reality.

"It has been an incredible learning experience," she said. Realizing what a rookie she was, this engaging woman is constantly modifying her product line to find just the right mix of goods. Wine, coffee and specialty foods are the bulk of her merchandise. Besides toys, gifts and consignment items from local artists, she also keeps some very basic groceries. Seasonally, the fresh produce and flowers abound. Kids can come in for penny candy or a soft drink during the day, and adults can pick up a bottle of wine on the way home from work.

The commercial district, including the corner store, is located about one mile from the main street. Traffic can include as many as 12,000 cars per day. This is critical, since Newpoint is not large enough to support the enterprise on its own.

Overall the stores are well accepted by the neighbors. Even the business owners themselves try to support each other. For instance, the ice cream store, Berry Island, doesn't sell coffee and Waggoner doesn't sell ice cream. "Everyone comments on how [the store] makes them happy just to walk in."

A marvelous example of a successful corner grocery store located within a community can be found in Harbor Town, in Memphis, Tenn. Miss Cordelia's Grocery, named after the developer's grandmother, has been open since January 1998. Nestled in the middle of the neighborhood, this is a true grocery store and carries very few non-food items. Its specialty items have been expanded to cater to the needs of its citizens. "We are constantly adjusting," says Ron Wicker, manager of Miss Cordelia's since October 2000. "Ask us for something, and we will do our best to find it."

Owned by developer Henry Turley and run by his wife, Lynne, the 6,000-square-foot store is not subsidized. Much of its success can be attributed to the location of Harbor Town itself. Just outside of downtown Memphis, Mud Island is a peninsula connected to the city by a bridge in the southern end of town. Although not a long trip, about five miles, the psychological effect of the bridge works its magic. People tend to stay on their quiet side to shop rather than go across to the bustling city. Pricing is carefully monitored to assure Miss Cordelia's is competitive with the larger chains.

The Future

No one can say where we go from here. The mom and pop stores of our youth are probably gone, but in their place may be something better. Stores that cater to a specific area and clientele, stores that have Internet connections, and stores that are actually cafés or coffee shops are turning up everywhere. As walking communities, TNDs are more than capable of supporting these endeavors. Any help to increase the cohesiveness of the neighborhood by providing a gathering place is a welcome and eagerly anticipated side benefit of the new urbanism philosophy.