How downtown can compete with the mall

Sixty years ago, throughout the U.S., malls began to replace traditional, historic downtowns. Forty years ago this happened in Parkersburg. There are several simple reasons why.

Malls guaranteed a packaged look and feel through their plans, rules and requirements. They have strategic location, specific retail choices, the collective powers, and costs, of maintenance, utilities, security and marketing.

Even apart from the 800 pound gorilla called “parking,” there is a primary reason the average mall operates more effectively than the average downtown: single ownership.

One entity controls every aspect of the retail experience.

Yet, with everything going for them, an interesting fact is emerging about malls. In the U.S., they are in decline, and in many places, closing at a record pace. There also are primary reasons for this.

People are starting to understand that “retail-only” locations may not be so wonderful after all. A mall is not a neighborhood; a downtown is. That’s why it’s more valuable. Additionally, downtowns are getting smarter about working together. And working together works.

Working together implies two main considerations; planning and zoning. It also implies every building and business owner must consider their neighbor’s needs alongside their own.

Good planning and zoning ordinances work like any other rules or laws. They protect good neighbors who operate their buildings or businesses in a civic-minded way from owners who do not. If your residential neighbor is not allowed to abandon a junk car in his front yard, then why would a downtown business neighbor be allow to abandon his storefront next to your storefront?

Let me state it clearly. Downtown Parkersburg needs planning and zoning that is well thought out by the community-at-large and evenly enforced by good city government.

I recently read about several communities that are considering what is called a “vibrant downtown ordinance.” The idea is to require commercial building owners to fill their first floor with a business; any business, as long as it isn’t antisocial. Ordinances incent, or penalize, building owners to run their business in a way that is beneficial, or at least not damaging, to their business neighbors.

I’ve also heard of communities taxing buildings on the “potential” value of property space, regardsless if it was filled with tenants. Frankly, I don’t think we, as a community, are allowed by this State to enact such a rule. I believe that’s because of wrong-headed, anti- home rule laws (buts that’s another article topic in itself).

Bottom line is that there are hundreds of ways to move downtown forward collectively. Some ideas I like; some I don’t. But we need to examine and embrace good ideas wherever we find them. We might find them from you.

A great way to tell us your good idea is to go to our website and fill out the downtown survey, 1,200 of your neighbors already have.

A great way for downtown to compete with a mall is for the entire community to collectively choose, desire, and work toward a vibrant downtown. That means everybody’s input matters.

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Cecil Childress is General Manager of the Blennerhassett Hotel and chairman of Downtown PKB.