Sunday rumination: Independent local merchants can’t shy away from the big picture.


On Tuesday, there was a “merchant meeting” (formerly referred to as the “Merchant Mixer”). These informal morning gatherings have taken place somewhat regularly since 2007.

Recently several NAC postings have been devoted to items of possible interest to local independent small business owners, though it might be conceded that I have few illusions as to their reach, and even more about their acceptance.

From 2011 and 2015: Regaining consciousness in a city “coming” to? Or, the infamous Come to City marketing fiasco of 2011.

ON THE AVENUES: DNA, National Main Street, the Four Points, and how it might yet be possible to get this thing right for once.

In NA, too? “Traffic Safety Advocates Taking Action Into Their Own Hands.”

ON THE AVENUES: There has never been a better time for an Independent Business Alliance in New Albany.

Did you hear the one about New Albany’s tolling preparedness plan?

BID/EID: ” Maybe the merchants of New Albany should consider helping themselves through this device.”

Bigger pictures are painfully elusive, for whatever reason, and to be perfectly honest, I think it’s a mistake for merchants to ignore contemporary urban themes pertaining to streets, walkability, the built environment, placemaking and parking, among others.

There’s a reason why I constantly advocate two-way street reversions. If the available (and steadily expanding) evidence is correct, and two-way streets favorably enhance prospects for independent local businesses, then this enhancement occurs and compounds daily. If it added 7.5% to sales on weekdays year round, what would this total during the course of a year?

If two-way reversions were accompanied by other mutually-reinforcing initiatives in nearby neighborhoods (walkability, rental property regulation, etc,), then the result might well be an uptick in locals patronizing locals — again, throughout the year. Downtown probably won’t be the place we go to buy toilet paper, but at least it might become feasible for there to be a shop selling TP and other daily items.

However … if merchants focus on special events as a spur to patronage by non-residents, there is a collective skewing effect, because if one has concluded that downtown New Albany is best deployed as a destination, as served by periodic special events and as a place tourists from elsewhere visit, there’s a tendency to become overly conservative with regard to necessary street grid changes.

Or, the decades-old Bob Caesar error writ large: People will only come downtown from somewhere else if it’s easy for their autos, and so downtown must be as suburban as possible in its organization and access.

Not only does this attitude embody an implicit civic inferiority complex (we’re not good enough and must trade real content for perceived convenience), but it disenfranchises the existing population by removing their interests from the equation.

The property values of residents on a one-way arterial streets must be kept artificially low so Bob Caesar can sell a diamond, because no one would consider coming to buy a diamond from Bob Caesar unless they might do so very quickly — and leave just as speedily.

It is my belief that by ignoring integrated factors like these, which require big picture thinking, merchants are missing the very factors weighing in favor of their long-term interests.

We welcome visitors, but we don’t need to be Franklin, Tennessee. We need to be New Albany, Indiana, considering downtown economic development strategies based on who and where we are, as embracing 37,000 residents already living here. We’re better off doing this ourselves, not begging for scraps from this or any other City Hall with its own political imperatives in mind.

Thus, the instructive example of tourism troubles in Brussels.

Terrorism is a huge factor in diminished downtown crowds, and yet it isn’t the only one. Read on.

Tourism Troubles in Brussels, by Feargus O’Sullivan (City Lab)

Terror attacks have led to a drop-off in the Belgian capital’s visitor numbers. But that isn’t the only issue.

… According to the latest figures, Brussels hotel occupancy is at just 62 percent, a drop of 18 percent for the month of July compared to last year. Bar and restaurant takings are down between 25 and 30 percent. Even visits to the city’s most popular attraction, the iron crystal Atomium built for the 1958 World’s Fair, has seen visits fall by 40 percent.

The main reason for the fall is clear enough: people are afraid of terrorism. After the men behind the Paris attacks of last November were traced back to the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, a huge manhunt ensued that left the city under lockdown for four days. Long-standing fears of an imminent attack were then confirmed in March, when bomb attacks at the city’s airport and the Maalbeek Metro Station killed 35, including three perpetrators.

Maybe …

Still, there may be yet other factors contributing to the tourism downturn in Brussels. The city’s hospitality industry is overwhelmingly centered on the knot of streets around the Grand Place, to the extent that tourists have largely taken over this part of town, and locals tend to stay away. The result is that Brussels residents are by and large not interested in spending time around the square to make up the current shortfall. According to local media reports, the area is lately dead during the mornings and after nightfall. As one local waitress told the newspaper La Libre:

“The Grand Place represents Belgium, but the [people of the] city have abandoned the UNESCO perimeter – it’s a stampede! There are bums, people sit in the middle of the square drinking alcohol while listening to music. And from 9 pm onwards, there’s nobody around.”

And the answer?

Elsewhere in and around Brussels, visitor attractions are fighting back with a basic but sensible plan of price cuts and promotions aimed primarily not at international visitors but Belgians.

In the meantime, the current state of the Grand Place and its environs is beginning to look like a cautionary tale to any city with areas where catering to tourists overrules the needs of locals. When tourism is allowed to dominate and then suddenly disappears, you run the risk of ending up with a gorgeous but relatively empty shell.