Two stories out of O’Fallon, Missouri, today allude to the failures of top-down community planning and optimistically endorse more top-down community planning.
First, we have the story of how small businesses beamed down into New Urbantopias sometimes fail:
Some businesses are doing well. The customers are flocking to the Listons’ neighborhood-style tavern, patterned after the one they used to run in St. Louis’ Dogtown area.
Nearby residents drop in Curbside Cleaners with not only piles of dry-cleaning but also newsy updates about their families and kids for co-owner Donna Stuart. And at the Churchill Coffee Express inside the local branch of the St. Charles City-County Library, owner Robert Tock says he has a loyal group of sippers lining up at his door at 6:30 a.m.
But for other merchants who rely on foot and car traffic and a bit of impulse buying, it’s been a rocky few years.
Late last year, the Boardwalk suffered a major blow when Dave and Kathy Grabis closed their corner grocery market, to the dismay of many loyal customers who considered the couple the mom and dad of the fledgling neighborhood.
“Dave leaving was definitely a downfall for this area,” said resident Gisell Sterner, as she dropped off clothes at the dry cleaners.
It was the second failed retail endeavor along the one-block strip, following the closure of a Roly Poly lunch shop.
Two other small-town mainstays – the ice cream parlor and the pizza shop – both hit hard times early on, and their original owners sold the business to new entrepreneurs who both have watched the car and foot traffic to their shops dwindle in the aftermath of the grocery’s failure.
In January, things didn’t get easier when WingHaven’s free trolley stopped service because of a lack of ridership.
Never fear, though; the central planners are still at it:
Business owners and residents are now optimistic about negotiations under way between an area convenience store owner and WingHaven’s developer – McEagle Properties – to open a market in the same location as the former grocery.
Because the New Urbanists believe the corner market will trump super Schnucks, Dierbergs, and food-slinging Wal-Marts. Because they say so, they continue to push for it. Because if they will it, the citizens will shop there.
In other news, O’Fallon is going to apply for state money to revitalize its downtown:
If all goes as well, it could be O’Fallon’s dream come true.
The City Council gave staff the OK to apply for Missouri’s DREAM initiative program.
Known as the Downtown Revitalization Economic Assistance for Missouri, the DREAM initiative is a new program created through a partnership between the Missouri’s department of economic development, development finance board and the housing development commission.
The goal of the program is to offer technical and financial assistance for communities to more efficiently and effectively start the downtown revitalization process.
Additionally, the program is supported by professionals who are dedicated to help cities rebuild central business districts and shortens the redevelopment timeline, according to DREAM officials.
“What it does it combine existing incentive packages and brings it all under one umbrella,” said Jim Curran, O’Fallon’s director of economic development. “More cities are taking a look at the program that may not have qualified in the past due to medium income or population.”
Leaving aside that the revitalized downtown will probably cause more of the New Urbantopia businesses in WingHaven to collapse, we’re struck again with an instance of the government or other planners trying to induce demand for a service by providing supply of the service. In the case of both the development and the downtown, there’s no one there who needs a small urban grocery or whatever, but the planners want their kitsch, so they’ll spend their own money or our tax dollars to resuscitate faux urban areas.
The original downtowns sprung up where people crowded together to live for commerce, trade, and security. Since we have better, cheaper mechanisms for travel to and from work and commerce, we don’t need the congested areas any more. Those downtowns and their businesses and their housing emerged because people needed it and demanded it. Not because someone decided that the land needed x density of population and y numbers of businesses within walking distance.
And trying to impose such won’t make it so. But it will waste a lot of money in the process.