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Editorial: Busting the Myth About Vacant Storefronts

by Matthew Green, 12/16/09

There are urban myths, and then there are myths about urban areas. The most popular current myth about downtown Olympia seems to be The Legend of the Huge and Terrible Number of Vacant Storefronts.

City officials have begun tracking ground-floor vacancy rates downtown for the first time in recent memory,” reported the Olympian last month. The rate of 9.6% “was a pleasant surprise for some city and business representatives, who had expected it to be higher.”

A surprise? Really? Anyone who was surprised just wasn’t paying attention. Instead of walking through downtown and trusting their eyes, they had accepted the myth perpetuated by detractors of downtown.

The Olympian noted a count by its own reporter in 2005 that found 8% of downtown storefronts were vacant, and a study by the Thurston Economic Development Council that found downtown vacancies fluctuating between 4% and 13% in 2007 and 2008. Both reports included statements from economic development “experts” that a vacancy rate up to about 10% is normal and healthy.

Ok, it sounds like downtown Olympia is mostly normal and healthy.

But that doesn’t seem to excite people as much as the myth.

The worst offender is the Olympian’s editorial page, which often ignores the numbers and experts in its own reports, and instead cites the supposedly vast numbers of storefront vacancies as evidence of a horrible problem. It then blasts the city council for not solving that problem – or at least, not solving it in ways the editors want it solved.

Once, the editorial writer insisted that the city use eminent domain to take over the burnt-out Griswold building, on 4th Avenue near Franklin Street. Apparently, the only crisis desperate enough to justify the city government confiscating private property was that a storefront remained vacant too long.

That page also seems to delight in printing letters from people who won’t go downtown because they saw a vacant storefront (or perhaps they just drove by it) – or maybe who encountered a panhandler or hippy or something equally dreadful.

[An aside: Why do people take the trouble to write a letter about how they won’t go downtown, when it would be less work just to not go downtown?]

In the news section, every closing of a small business is covered as a sign of the looming doom threatening all of downtown Olympia. Proposed changes in downtown parking – from installing meters to building a garage – are described by both reporters and proponents as urgent attempts to fix parking problems that will otherwise ruin downtown. Graffiti, protests, and aggressive panhandling are portrayed as crimes that menace all who visit downtown, even while domestic assaults, burglaries, and car break-ins top the countywide crime statistics printed inside the same paper.

In the news articles, the business owners themselves blame the closing of their business mostly on increased costs, a bad economy, increased competition, and/or the desire of the owner to do something else. The reporter sometimes then follows up by asking whether parking or crime was also a reason, as if the owner’s explanation must be incomplete until those factors are included.

One such article unquestioningly reported that “For some shoppers, downtown doesn’t provide enough parking or is viewed as too dangerous, [the business owner] said. ‘For some reason, it has this stigma attached to it,’…”

Now, where exactly did “this stigma” come from? Oh, right, it came from tales just like this one, in the newspaper and then from critics of downtown echoing what they read in the newspaper, repeating the same myths over and over. If enough people say enough times that downtown has no parking and is dangerous – and has too many vacant storefronts – even without substantiation, more and more people believe it.

Small businesses in downtown face enough real difficulties already without adding fake ones. Shops with few employees – or with zero besides the owner – must compete with big box stores run by massive corporations. Downtown stores must compete with malls and their landscape- and soul-destroying parking lots. Physical storefronts must compete with internet sites. The biggest local employer – state government – is cutting employees. Last year, the whole country sank into the worst recession in decades.

The result is, indeed, more vacant storefronts and more business failures than anybody would like. And each one is a sad story for a real person.

Yet, the numbers show – and an honest, open-eyed assessment confirms – that downtown Olympia is still doing okay. In fact, it probably compares well against rates of small business failures nationwide, and against vacancy rates in malls and strip malls (though that never seems to get reported locally).

Plus, every few weeks, another local entreprenuer feels optimistic enough to fill one of those vacant storefronts with their new business – and often it works. Remember, every beloved local downtown insitution, the businesses that seem to have been there forever and we cannot image not being there, started out when someone took a chance by moving into an empty space.

All of which suggests that downtown Olympia must be doing something right to support small businesses.

Our list of what downtown does right for business includes: more cultural and social events than than anywhere else in the region (which attract potential customers); greater diversity of stores; greater diversity of people (that is, potential customers); housing and offices that supply residents and employees everyday (again, potential customers); and greater opportunity for creative expression (not just for artists – local business owners are also free to try new things without needing permission from corporate headquarters). Furthermore, downtown inspires a stronger sense of personal attachment, from business owners and customers alike, than any mall can do, which can create loyalty and motivate customers to choose downtown businesses first.

Downtown Olympia has its problems, but there is a difference between ill-intentioned complaints and constructive criticism. Rather than perpetuating misconceptions, those who care about downtown ought to recognize its realities and suggest ways to enhance its beauty and repair its blemishes. We pledge that this editorial page will follow that advice.

For now – with apologies to Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman – the myth of the vast number of vacant storefronts in downtown Olympia: busted. ◙

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