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My Way

A downtown space is a terrible thing to waste

January 23, 2013 - To me, the highest and best use of any storefront in a place like downtown Oxford is a commercial enterprise that caters to shoppers, diners or folks in search of entertainment on a Friday night.

That's why I'm strongly opposed to having a third, yes third, downtown space occupied by the school district.

I'm not opposed to it because it's the school district per se.

In fact, I was extremely glad to hear Superintendent Dr. William Skilling tell the Downtown Development Authority at its Jan. 21 meeting that the virtual academy's leased downtown presence is only "temporary." The district has three-year leases for both 3 and 5 S. Washington St.

I must also applaud Skilling for saying he understands why merchants would prefer to see those spaces occupied by retail businesses and how the schools being there can have a negative impact.

Frankly, I don't believe any government entity should be taking up valuable space for any period of time in a small downtown. I hate it when you drive along one of these old downtown main streets and you see municipal offices, the public library, police and fire stations, and not much else.

Some see public services, I see lost opportunities for economic growth and success. I see a boring downtown that has very little going for it.

I'm all for quickly filling vacancies whenever they pop up in a downtown. Nothing looks worse than a bunch of empty storefronts. It gives the impression of a town in economic decline, a place nobody wants to visit.

But I don't believe filling spaces with government entities somehow makes the town look better or does anything to attract visitors who want to spend their money.

To me, it shows potential commercial tenants there is no demand for downtown property, hence no profits to be made here. There's no waiting list, no buzz, no cachet to being downtown, just landlords who can't seem to find viable tenants that derive their income from sales as opposed to taxes.

The vision for downtown Oxford that I keep hearing about doesn't involve having building after building purchased or leased by government entities that really don't require prime real estate to house their operations.

Having the school district or any government entity owning or leasing downtown space is definitely contrary to the Market Analysis & Strategy Plan that the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) paid $35,700 to have formulated back in 2007.

That document clearly stated the downtown area's focus should be on food and entertainment. "We look at Oxford as ultimately a regional entertainment and restaurant destination," said Charles Smith, of McKenna Associates, Inc., one of the firms that did the market study.

"You get 36,900 cars a day that drive through downtown that don't necessarily identify Oxford as a destination," Smith told the DDA six years ago. "With new entertainment and restaurants, that will change. The whole idea is to get people out of their cars."

According to the market study, using restaurants and entertainment as downtown's "anchors" will help create the "24-7 kind of energy" that's needed to succeed.

Nowhere in the market study did it recommend using schools to attract visitors or turning the downtown into some sort of campus.

If we look at Oakland County's successful downtowns – places such as Royal Oak, Birmingham, Rochester, Ferndale, etc. – they draw visitors because of the types of businesses there. They have unique places to shop, interesting places to eat and fun places to enjoy live music, go dancing, shoot pool and mingle with members of the opposite sex. Everybody comes to those downtowns to spend money and in return, have a good time. It's consumerism at its finest.

That's the vibrant mix downtown Oxford needs to become an attractive destination. That's the mix we should be striving for. But that's a tough thing to accomplish with three prime downtown spaces occupied by the schools.

Now, some will argue that having the schools downtown benefits local businesses because they will be patronized by school employees, students and parents.

Sure, these groups will generate some economic activity by getting the occasional lunch at the 24th Street Tavern or buying a candy bar from Patterson's Pharmacy.

But I highly doubt these folks will make any sort of significant economic impact. They may help some downtown businesses survive with small sales here and there, but they won't make them prosper.

To me, that's not good enough and it shouldn't be good enough to anybody who champions economic development. That's not development, that's subsistence.

I don't know any business owner whose main goal is to simply get by and keep the doors open. If that is their goal, they aren't in business for very long.

I want a downtown Oxford that's profitable, not just scraping by. I want a downtown Oxford that attracts people to come here for one reason only – to spend money, whether it's on a beer or a piece of jewelry or a toy. I want a downtown Oxford that is geared exclusively toward meeting consumers' wants and needs.

That's not going to happen as long as valuable spaces are lost to government or any other non-commercial entity for that matter – unless it's something like the local historical museum, which I believe serves as an attraction and therefore falls under the category of entertainment.

Downtowns should be places of business. If you're not a business, you shouldn't be downtown.

If downtown landlords are having difficulty attracting businesses, we need to figure out why and fix it.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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