It’s “The Stuff,” Stupid!
Well, this is going to sound like the simplest solution to putting some life in a dead downtown that you have ever heard: Add stuff. I know that begs the question, of course. What kind of stuff? And the answer is….almost any kind of stuff!
Before we get into the details of why stuff matters, let’s look at the towns without stuff and see if we can get a glimpse of why a dead-as-a-sack-of-hammers downtown is as blank as a sheet of paper. But, why is it blank? Yes, you might say the former downtown businesses closed because no one came downtown to shop and you’d be right, but why did shoppers abandon that downtown? I think the absence of stuff had a lot to do with it. In order to understand the concept of stuff, I’m going to use an example a very successful restaurant—The Superior Grill in Shreveport. It’s packed every night, and yes they do serve good food, but the Superior is much more than a good place to eat. Going to the Superior is having the Superior experience complete with all the trimmings, and the trimmings are the “stuff” that makes the restaurant click. Colored lights are strung from the ceiling, almost every inch of wall space is covered with everything from bullfight posters to mounted steer heads, plus adding to the stuff, there’s TVs on every wall and the music is blaring. This restaurant is the poster child for “more stuff”. Yes, I know they serve great margaritas and their open grill turns out super fajitas, but would the restaurant still knock ‘um dead without the stuff? Maybe, but can you imagine stripping the restaurant to the walls? Of course not, because who in their right mind would tinker with a cash machine like that?
Okay, now let’s see if the “stuff” concept will transfer to a dead downtown and breathe life into it. There are plenty of dead downtowns to use as examples and they all have one thing in common. Almost without exception the store fronts, parking lots, and sidewalks are bare. There are no trees, green boulevards, or any other items to clutter the area. It’s not that the residents wanted a bare downtown; it was a matter of priorities. Trees, planters, kiosks and any other “fluff” items, as these things were called were given such a low priority that by the time the town’s limited resources were allocated, the monies were depleted. Yes, the industrial parks and job creation was considered primary beneficiaries, but if you want to know how that worked out, check the multi-millions spent on deserted industrial parks. Obviously, there has to be a better way for our towns and cities to spend their money.
First, let’s look at the easy items that will improve a downtown, and believe it or not it’s the visual items that are the most important. A government survey of several strip centers proved this point. They compared strip centers that were essentially blank to those that were landscaped with plants around the stores and trees in their parking lot. The compared centers carried similar merchandise. They found that the landscaped strip centers did almost 25% more business than the blank shopping centers. Customers actually thought the stores with the landscaped parking lot had better quality goods and they were willing to pay more for them. Even though, that wasn’t the case. The two strip centers had stores with almost identical merchandise. Well, landscaping is sure stuff; so I guess you might say stuff sells.
I guess you might say stuff sells because of our inquisitive human nature. Let me give you two examples: First Jasper, Arkansas. Well, tiny Jasper is not big enough to have much, but it’s right in the middle of scenic Arkansas, and very close to our elk herd. So why not put a 9 foot statue of an elk right downtown? Yep, they did and a picture of that elk was splashed across paper after paper. Just think of the folks who will go out of their way to visit Jasper—and see the elk. Of course, it takes visitors to give a downtown life, and Jasper has taken a step forward in attracting them. Example number two: El Dorado…yes, we have great buildings and a wonderful courthouse, but what are the most photographed items in El Dorado and maybe in the state? Yes, it’s two pieces of stuff, which are the two red, Old English Phone Booths. They are the real thing straight from London, and when they were installed they were actual phone booths. However, cell phones put them out of business, so the two phone booths have been resurrected as the Downtown Book Exchanges. They are back in business and are as photographed as ever.
If we look a little deeper into the stuff concept, we’ll see we are really picky when it comes to adding stuff to a downtown. The country of Switzerland is almost a Disney theme park when it comes to adding stuff, and naturally with a drop dead backdrop of the Alps, tourism is the number one business in the country. However, most visitors don’t climb the Alps; they end up walking around in the hundreds of small towns filled with stuff. The Swiss have developed a knack for just the right stuff, and what do they focus on? Well, in their natural setting around the mountains, the theme in most villages has to do with nature. Hanging baskets from streetlight poles, window boxes with flowers, and on and on with everything natural and historic as they can make it. If you removed the stuff from the Swiss villages, they might look a lot like some of our downtowns, and they would probably have about as many visitors as we do.
Now, let’s hone in on Arkansas and focus on stuff that would enhance not only the looks of most towns, but would draw visitors, and maybe give some of our visitors a reason to move to one of our towns that are losing population. First let’s look at the big minuses that detract from our Natural State theme, and blank parking lots are the biggest eyesore in most towns. Of course, in automobile American almost every town of any size has parking lots, but they don’t have to be blank eyesores. If we check out how almost every progressive city handles bare parking lots, the first thing you will find is they have a greenscape ordinance, which very simply means parking lots must have at least 25% greenspace. If a city builds on the greenscape ordinance basis, it will promote sidewalk planters, window boxes, and street trees. Yes, it’s just more stuff, but it all adds up.
Of course, I could go on and on about stuff, but I think you get the point. Stuff draws people, and people restore life to a dead downtown.