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
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.
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.