Monday, November 18, 2013

While Place Still Matters - A Localist Agenda

Ninth Street in Durham, North Carolina is a district that bookends the Duke East Campus on one side with the Brightleaf Historic District on the other.

Together they serve as more linear “main drags” do at other university towns, but they are so much more.

In his research that first identified the importance of districts like these to creative class centers such as Durham, Dr. Richard Florida characterized them as “indigenous” and “organic” “smorgasbords.”

Try as they may, local governments and master planners, including developers, can’t recreate these districts.  But without a “localist” policy agenda that protects these habitats for local, independent businesses they can, however, unwittingly help destroy them.

Those in my former field of visitor-centric economic and cultural development must walk a narrow line when promoting these fragile districts as key parts of a community’s personality and appeal. 

This promotion also draws the attention of chain-reliant developers who hope, in an all too often fatal attraction, seek to cash in on the success of these districts, such as three are doing now along Ninth Street, by adding a hotel, several chain restaurants and a supermarket.

To their credit, the new developments have made a special and very savvy effort to pick up the design personality of Ninth Street, including the remnant of the historic textile mill at its center and for which the district was born.

Surrounding neighborhoods, merchants and university leaders worked with Durham City-County Planning to create a Ninth Street Plan.  A few weeks ago the City Council approved tax increment (or self) financing for a million dollars of improvements, hopefully including period lighting and removal of telephone poles along the district.

But mostly these deal with appearance, the hardware of districts.  Their survival relies even more on the software side including programming, a healthy ratio of local, independent businesses to chains.

In 1991, just 25 months after I was recruited here to jump-start Durham community’s destination marketing organization, I clipped a column (pre-Internet) by Dennis Rogers, a veteran columnist and editorial writer for the newspaper over in Raleigh, a rival metro area east and south of Durham with shared ownership of an airport located midway between.

Rogers, who retired two years before I did grew up further “down east” which is what we call the coastal plain of North Carolina.  Although, we never met, his six years on the road after retirement gave me inspiration for my many cross country trips once I did.

He always seemed to take an interest in Durham, I suspect because it has always been more genuine and authentic by nature, and in that 1991 column I clipped, he noted something that I wish Durham officials including me had taken less for granted:

Ninth Street is what Chapel Hill’s fabled Franklin Street used to be.  It is sometimes pretentious but always charming and the last hide-out for social outlaws.  I like it a lot.”

Rogers could sense that Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, a college town that lies within the metro area centered around Durham was inalterably changing because a trendy Gap clothing store was due to open there the following year.

A decade later the chain store was gone but the damage to the Franklin Street ecosystem was done and now after another decade of observations by experts and studies by consultants leaders there have yet to figure out how to restore it.

By definition, being organic can’t really be planned when it comes to districts.  The harder some try, the more apparent the distinction becomes.

Only time will tell if the developments along Ninth Street will do the same to the small, locally-owned and independent businesses there.  I hope not.  In Durham, we’re all hoping not, none more so than the developers.

But instead of just congratulating ourselves on hopefully “dodging a bullet,” officials in Durham would be well advised to aggressively pursue a more proactive and comprehensive “localist policy agenda” before it is too late.

A few months ago, Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance delivered a speech in Buffalo, New York entitled “Toward A Localist Policy Agenda.” (Click to view her slides, as you read the transcript.)

Number 3 on her list of 7 recommendations is to “adopt planning policies that create great habitat for local businesses.”  San Francisco is cited as a best practice because it carefully safeguards a mix of chain or what are called “formula stores” in that city’s unique districts such as Ninth Street is for Durham.

Think of it as being similar to limiting the over concentration of liquor licenses and convenience stores.  In some SF districts chains are prohibited entirely.  In most cases, the ordinance just makes sure other businesses and residents are notified and have a voice in, or as activists did in Durham, an opportunity to shape approvals.

San Francisco has maintained a far more healthy ratio of independents to chains than other cities, yet in the first four years of the ordinance of the 37 applications received, 23 were approved and only six were withdrawn for lack of support.

The process merely sensitizes developers to a healthy mix of both local, independent businesses and formulas.

During my few months in San Francisco in the late 1980s, I lived in the Marina District (which was hit hard by the earthquake that occurred during the World Series a few months after I had resettled in Durham.)  It was only one of many unique and indigenous districts I frequented, each with a different personality and mix.

Durham’s hands may currently be tied by the Republican-controlled State General Assembly that seems bent on restricting innovation in cities, towns and counties by prohibiting them from doing anything not sanctioned by the state.

This is, in effect, a reversal of the claim that party uses to promote innovation among the states as an alternative to top-down policies from the federal government.

But until that changes—and it will—Durham can take up another part of Mitchell's “localist” policy agenda and begin to “collect better data and set benchmarks.”

Durham can appeal to an organization called Civic Economics to become one of a number of cities across the nation that are documenting the impact of and threats to local independent businesses such as this analysis for Grand Rapids, a community in Durham’s peer group.

Better data would help Durham know where it falls on the group’s “Indie Index.”  Currently, the four-county MSA for which Durham is a center ranks as “chain-oriented” and far below the national average for the proportion of local, independent businesses.

The existence of unique districts such as Ninth Street is correlated to being appealing to talent clusters such as the creative class and subsequently to business expansions and relocations that pursue them.

But there is so much more at stake.

Nearly 70% of the US economy is related to consumption.  An in-depth analysis of the economy of the Province of British Columbia released earlier this year by Civic Economics showed that independent retailers and restaurants recirculate 2.6 times as much revenue into a local economy as chain competitors.

“A shift of just 10% of the market there from chains to independents would produce 31,000 jobs paying $940 million in wages in BC workers.”  Maybe Governor McCrory would be well advised to jump on having a similar analysis performed for North Carolina.

If officials are complacent about a “localist” economy centered on independent businesses, particularly in places such as Durham where sense of place is still apparent, it may be that we suffer from what cognitive researchers such as Dr.Daniel Kahneman call “availability bias.”

This is where people use mental shortcuts or heuristics to make decisions that dismiss or underestimate a risk just because they haven’t experienced it or detected something such as losing an ecosystem of locally owned and independent businesses.

Or maybe it is because for decades, traditional supply-side economic developers viewed “commercial” as a byproduct rather than as the core element it is to demand-side economic developers such as I was.

One of my favorite blog posts was expressed by Harvard psychology researcher, Dr. Dan Gilbert, on the final day of my career four years ago  entitled “Times to Remember, Places to Forget.”

Lamenting that without local independent businesses and experience to help make experiences unique, we are left:

“..marinating in memories that happened everywhere but not somewhere, reliving experiences that are located in time but dislocated in space.” 

“Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered.”


Unknown said...

Thanks, Reyn! We've been working to build a more local-centric environment here in Durham and would love to be involved in bringing Civic Economics to Durham for such an impact study.

Unknown said...

Thanks Reyn! We've been working to create a more local-centric culture here in Durham and appreciate your support. We'd love to bring Civic Economics to Durham for a local impact study. Let us know if you'd like to get more involved in that process.