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VOL. 36 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 23, 2012

Bringing town squares back to the dance

By Stephanie Toone

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Gallatin’s town square is struggling, as evidenced by this empty storefront, while squares in Franklin and Murfreesboro are successfully fighting back against malls and big-box retailers.

-- Hollie Deese | Nashville Ledger

Franklin’s downtown brick-and-mortar storefronts buzz with the sounds of local families, international visitors and curious shoppers checking out the shops, restaurants and a richness in character they might not find in their own downtown.

The downtown square, which dates back to the late 1770s, is one of many across the country that have given life back to the title: “The Great American Main Street.”

Middle Tennessee’s downtown squares were once community anchors where the local drugstore, grocer, cafe and even movie theaters could be found.

Though no longer the primary destination, some Midstate towns have invested in renovation, marketing and have the community support needed to keep downtown viable. Others, such as Gallatin, are struggling to keep Main Street alive.

Midstate squares compete

With the economy still trying to rebound, customers are more careful of how and where they spend their dollars, says Bob Roethemeyer, Downtown Franklin Partnership president and owner of Avec Moi.

He says he’s seen interest in downtown Franklin flourish over the last several years, in part because of what the historic downtown square offers versus a shopping mall.

“I think malls are still a destination, but, many times, people want to fill time when they’re bored,” Roethemeyer says. “When they come to downtown, they are filling time but with a much more pleasurable experience. The architecture is visually stimulating. The whole experience of shopping downtown appeals to many more senses.”

Restaurants are experiencing a revival on most Middle Tennessee squares, giving retailers another tool to attract shoppers.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

As much as the look of a downtown square piques the interest of consumers, the history of the downtown square also remains a significant draw for many, says Chris Gerbman who has co-owned Country Gourmet for 21 years, 16 of which have been spent in the heart of Murfreesboro’s downtown square.

“It’s neat to be able to walk out of my shop and stand on the steps of the courthouse where Andrew Jackson stood and announced he was running for president,” he says. “It’s definitely bigger than what any of us can sell.

Promotion pays off

The history of a downtown square is significant, but the dollars and promotion invested in those squares make a difference, says Jay Sheridan, spokesman for the Downtown Franklin Partnership.

Franklin’s Heritage Foundation and Williamson County Visitors and Convention Bureau makes it a point to attract media attention – Franklin was recently featured in Southern Living – and devote government monies to Franklin’s downtown square.

Many residents also live and work in Franklin’s downtown area, which has kept the square as a convenient and lively shopping and dining option, he says.

“Franklin’s downtown historic core, residential and commercial, is largely intact, and all those factors working together have created a very unique experience – a Great American Main Street – that people are attracted to,” Sheridan adds.

Gallatin’s square struggles

Location has worked in the favor of both Franklin and Murfreesboro’s downtown squares, but Gallatin’s once vibrant downtown no longer benefits from its locale, says Paige Brown Strong, executive director of the Gallatin Chamber of Commerce.

Gallatin’s downtown square does not see the traffic it once did due to development going elsewhere, Strong says.

“I think our citizens are very supportive, but businesses still struggle,” she says. “In Gallatin, the difficulty we face is that a lot of development has occurred west of town (closest to Nashville).

“Since people are most likely to travel towards a major city, it’s difficult to compete or to get people to travel away from Nashville, towards Gallatin’s historic business district.”

Gallatin’s downtown offers many of the amenities of most successful downtown squares, including restaurants, a bi-weekly farmers’ market and the historic Palace Theater, a former community theater turned movie house.

The architecture and character that often draws shoppers to downtown poses a challenge for city officials hoping to capitalize and bring more business to the square, Strong explains.

“The cost of repairing, renovating and maintaining buildings with the unique features that many old buildings have is high,” Strong says. “The profit margin of small business in small towns is often not enough to support the expenses that it takes to run one of these buildings.”

The outdoor ‘square’

While it’s expensive to renovate historic downtown squares, commercial developers in some parts of Middle Tennessee have invested in the less-costly option of recreating the “square” concept with outdoor shopping malls like the Providence Marketplace in Mt. Juliet and The Streets of Indian Lake in Hendersonville.

The competition, especially in a sluggish economy, makes it harder for shops in downtown squares to survive, but Gerbman says the new shopping malls only recreate one aspect.

“They have the look, but they don’t have the emotional tie that downtown squares do,” he says. “All the new malls try to capture it, but we have stood the test of time.”

‘Downtown Ambassadors’

Businesses in downtown squares can benefit from the nostalgia and good-feeling of buying local, but they also have to, like any small business, ensure that they have a product that people want, says Jeff Cornwall, Belmont University professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship.

“The types of businesses that offer niches, high-end items, unique gifts have the potential for growth,” Cornwall says. “Savvy entrepreneurs are able to offer consumers new ideas.

“Some of America’s leading companies were birthed during economic declines. You have to add value and provide good benefits at a time when people aren’t frivolous with their money.”

Rebecca Davis has done just that since she opened Jondie in downtown Franklin earlier this year.

She offers her own jewelry line, artisan items from local designers and a mix of cutting-edge accessories at the boutique. Along with providing affordable, sought-after products, Davis says her store has fared well because of the built-in incentive of being a part of the downtown community in Franklin.

“It’s a unique flavor we have going on here in downtown, and the residents and visitors who come here know it,” she says. “We all complement each other and have something great to offer, so it makes for a better experience than just a mall. We’re all downtown ambassadors. That’s what makes it work.”

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