May 19, 2011 |

Opinion

Criticisms I’ve heard from business owners about downtown revitalization include (a) that Main Street is dead, and can’t be saved, and (b) the free market, not a group of do-gooders, will determine Main Street’s fate.

As for the death pronouncement, Main Street hasn’t died as much as it’s been orphaned. The downtown strip was the town’s hub through the 1980s. Along it were three restaurants, a hair-cutting salon, two airlines, and shops selling everything from kitchenware and sporting goods to art supplies and old-time portraits.

The opening of the Port Chilkoot Dock to large cruise ships in 1995 led to a surge of investment in Fort Seward, based on its preferable location for capturing cruise passenger dollars. Some businesses were lured from downtown and new ventures started there including gift shops, galleries and restaurants. Most recently, permanent, commercial trailers have been staking out sites at the fort’s fringes.

Also in 1995, Dalton City – conceived in 1993 as a turn-of-the-century theme park – morphed into a "business incubator," enticing start-up businesses to locate at the fairgrounds for its low rents.

The rise of big-box stores in Juneau, improved access to the capital by fast ferry, Internet shopping and the proliferation of gift shops in Southeast’s biggest ports didn’t help downtown retailers.

Factoring in trailers, the fort and Dalton City, the town may actually have more places of business than it did 30 years ago, but many of the new shops are small and seasonal and 12 months of Main Street rents probably doesn’t pencil out for them.

Are there ways to make Main Street work for these businesses? Can two or three smaller businesses join forces and share a building? Can other incentives be created? What works for other towns?

These questions beg a larger community discussion because downtown revitalization isn’t about aesthetics; it’s about money. An identifiable, attractive commercial district that offers a range of products and services in a concentrated area encourages consumers to stop and look around. Lingering shoppers are more likely to spend. And shoppers appreciate finding what they need without chasing all over town.

This is the logic of successful marketplaces around the world. It has worked in dozens of communities across the United States that restored their downtowns to attract consumers weary of shopping malls and big-box stores. Leaders in Skagway understood the same logic 100 years ago, after the gold rush went bust and they moved their most impressive buildings onto Broadway to make the town look like something.

Efforts by businesses and individuals have improved the look of our downtown in the past few years, but the prospect of two empty buildings at the town center, the removal of pay phones, and a possible charge for a downtown shuttle point up the need for greater coordination.

The borough paid $40,000 for 15 months’ worth of meetings and a virtual, step-by-step guide to revitalizing the town’s core.

The plan is fairly simple. It lays out eight achievable, initial steps. Several of these – including upgrading signage, identifying improvement district boundaries, launching a shop-local campaign, and developing a building improvement grant program – have been started or completed by the Haines Borough or through the efforts of a volunteer group of downtown business owners.

Other steps outlined in the study – working with the state Department of Transportation on accommodating improvements, dedicating a local revenue source, and hiring staff to keep the project alive – will need to be addressed and will likely require some borough muscle.

It’s time we start rebuilding our downtown into a district that pays off for businesses and for the government’s tax coffers.

The alternative is to allow the fickle finger of the free market to guide our fate. That’s the path we’ve taken up to now. It’s not turning out so well.

-- Tom Morphet