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The plan to complete downtown turnaround, Pt. 1

by Ogi Overman

As I gaze from my second-story office window upon the streetscape of hustling, historic Hamburger Square, all seems well with my little corner of downtown Greensboro. Still, I wonder.

The local gazette and my e-mail inbox brought conflicting reports on its status last Wednesday. On the day before Thanksgiving, I was indeed thankful for the message from Action Greensboro that the long-awaited Center City Park will have its ribbon-cutting this Friday. But that bit of good news was tempered by the B1 story in the News & Record informing us that several downtown retail stores are shutting down and quite a few others are struggling.

These two tidbits illustrate the good news/bad news scenario that has become part and parcel of the process of rejuvenating a business district that had been left for dead a mere decade ago. On the plus side you have a booming residential market, bustling nightlife, a new park and another one planned, the Wachovia building renovation, First Horizon Park and a host of builders, developers and entrepreneurs willing to put their money where their mouths are. But the other side of the coin is that none of this translates into retail success for the shop owners who are the lifeblood of this or any downtown. Coupled with the news that downtown’s newest venue catering to original music, the Flying Anvil, is going under and that the Civil Rights Museum portion of the bond referendum went down in flames makes one wonder if this whole revitalization theme is a mirage. Have we already peaked?

No, it’s not a mirage and no, we haven’t come close to peaking. But, truth is, we need a plan. A big plan. A master plan. A Downtown Comprehensive Plan, if you will.

Now, let me backtrack by affirming yet again that Action Greensboro deserves the lion’s share of credit for the downtown turnaround. Their good works have made the downtown transformation possible and I can’t say enough good things about them. Likewise, Downtown Greensboro Inc. deserves a tip of the hat for doing the heavy lifting and nuts-and-bolts work required to lure new business downtown. So too do the heavy hitters like Roy Carroll, Milton Kern and Mark Schwartz, et. al., who understand that residential development drives commercial growth.

But the unsung heroes in all this are the small businesspersons who have rolled the dice on locating downtown. Some are making it, some are not, and unless and until something is done to tip the balance in their favor, downtown Greensboro will never be fully restored to its former luster. To make it a truly vibrant and economically sound area, the after-five foot traffic has to be replicated during the daytime. Folks have to be given a good reason to spend money here on things other than food and drink.

Now, let’s look at the numbers. Once the Wachovia building and Bellemeade Village and all the other nearby condos and apartments are up and running they will add a couple of thousand residents with considerable buying power to the area. No doubt they will add immensely to the tapestry of the center city, bringing money and energy and vibrancy and inertia and many of the things necessary for its continued rebirth. But not all of them. As exciting as it is to project five years into the future, the question must be asked: Even though they provide the bodies, will they spend their money downtown? And the answer is: Not enough of it. Given that the two big-ticket projects are largely self-contained (or as they say in zoning parlance, mixed-use residential), how many dollars will be spent within and how much will actually trickle into the small specialty shops that comprise the heart and soul of Elm, Market, Friendly, Greene, Davie, Church and the rest of the CBD?

Again we come back to foot traffic. What will it take to bring the requisite foot traffic downtown so that shops will spring up organically to cater to them? Will there ever be enough residents within walking distance to support them and, if not, what would it take to lure folks from all over the county to spend their hard-earned cash downtown?

Now, here’s where it gets really tricky. At the risk of being branded a naysayer, I don’t see it happening. Given the sprawl and the malls and the realities of postmodern America, I don’t see folks driving downtown, fighting for a parking spot and walking several blocks to find an item that could be purchased at any of a dozen other shops more conveniently located. Sorry, but that’s the way I see it.

So, if folks won’t walk or drive here in sufficient numbers to support retail establishments, who’s left? And where will they come from?

Shoot me now, but you’ll have to tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel to find out.

Ogi may be reached at ogiman100@yahoo.com, heard Tuesdays at 9:30 am on “The Dusty Dunn Show” on WGOS 1070 AM, and seen on “Triad Today” Fridays at 6:30 am on ABC 45 and Sundays at 10 pm on WMY 48.

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