The more downtowns change, the more they stay the same
Story by Chris Graham
Somebody asked Don Morris to sign a petition protesting the pending arrival of Wal-Mart in Waynesboro six years ago.
That the longtime Downtown Waynesboro business owner didn’t is an indication of where his thoughts are on economic-development issues.
“That to me was a no-brainer. Staunton had a Wal-Mart, Staunton had a Lowe’s. It might have been different if they didn’t have them. But why not get our share?” said Morris, the owner of Valley Framing Studio and Art Gallery.
Morris has been in downtown for 20 years – and remembers fondly back farther than that his own trips to the downtown near where he grew up in West Virginia.
“When I was growing up, and I’m older than you, we had one car in the family, and dad drove it to work. On the weekends, we went downtown. There weren’t strip malls. There weren’t mega-shopping centers. Either we went with dad to the hardware store, or if we needed clothes, we went with mom to the clothing store. And after we finished downtown, we went to the supermarket. But all that has changed. First you had strip malls, then you had the large regional shopping centers like Staunton Plaza when it came in, then you had the enclosed malls, and now we’re back to superstores,” Morris said.
Morris doesn’t see downtowns on the wrong end of a bayonet vis-a-vis the arrival of superstores like Wal-Mart in local economies. Neither does Tim Spears, the owner of Tim Spears Music City just down the street from Valley Framing.
“I think probably it has helped because it has brought more numbers to Waynesboro, and everything you do with earning a living is a numbers game,” Spears said.
Like Morris, Spears can’t understand why people assume that development in Waynesboro’s West End – which has flourished since Wal-Mart opened its doors in 2003 – means necessarily that the downtown district is dead or dead on arrival, anyway.
“With downtowns across the nation dying, you’ve got to liken it kind of to when horse-and-buggy was our primary means of transportation, and then the automobile came along. Well, that doesn’t mean that you kill the horse,” Spears said. “You know, you still take care of the horse, and you still monitor the horse, and the horse is still a big part of the society. But it’s not your main method of transportation anymore. And certainly shopping malls and strip malls and shopping centers and so forth have changed the way that people shop downtown, but in my way of thinking, downtowns across the nation, including ours, are not dead.”
Which isn’t to say that things are all hunky-dory in Downtown Waynesboro.
“Our business has always been a kind of destination business. But we miss the foot traffic outside. Because the foot traffic is usually the out-of-towners, the tourists – and we still have a lot of out-of-towners who become loyal customers. But you don’t have that many people walking up and down the street looking in the windows,” Morris said.
The challenge on the shoulders of the likes of Morris and Spears is to get and keep people thinking about their offerings.
“Put yourself in the shoppers’ shoes. If you have a store where you like to buy fine leather coats, or maybe a hat store, if you’re a hat person, and it might be in a little cubbyhole out of the way out of town. But if they have the price, product and the service, and you like their product, that’s where you’re going to get it. It doesn’t matter if they’re on Route 340 or 250. They will be there,” Spears said.
“As far as the customer base, in 23 years of business now, we have people coming to us from Culpeper, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Danville, Richmond. I’m not saying that I might not pick up a few extra customers if I went on the West End. But it’s doing well here. Music City is alive and well,” Spears said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press and The New Dominion.