Randomness in Downtowns

Fortune and fame are fleeting, as are the successes of downtown programs as they experience random events that shape their destiny. It happens all of the time. It starts with human factor of the people involved with the downtown program, and ends with the faceless corporate raider that closed the biggest downtown store.

Stuff Happens! It does not matter how good you are at revitalizing a community. There are a plethora of things that can happen to derail your efforts. The random events that happen are not part of a grand scheme or a killer marketing plan, but just ‘stuff’ that happens.

I have seen places where things are working well and the leader of the downtown program has personal an issue. In many cases, this issue renders that person ineffectual and programmatic delays occur when some work gets pushed back from month to month. If it is the leader’s role to deal with the issue, sooner of later the delaying behavior catches up with the rest of the organization. It may take the form of a lost request from a funding source, or receipts needed for an audit.

A regional chain’s decision to close a location can be enormously devastating. In the past, towns have had to deal with losing J.C. Penny and Sears and developing a plan for the re-use of the space, that is now oversized for the downtown. When a store goes out of business in the downtown, it does not always mean that there are problems with the store. 

Random stuff can happen when owners pass away and leave the businesses, or a building, to a relative or offspring. The new owner may want to liquidate the building and the business because of a general lack of interest or another avocation that does not allow time to run the operations of a retail store. As a result, you may get a great store to come in and even be better than the first store. The building also could sit vacant for years and years and stand to the symbol of decay of the downtown.

Managing a downtown, when these kinds of issues are a given, is always challenging, because you must be open to change and new ideas. There are towns like Lock Haven, where nothing much happened and it was easy to predict what was going to happen in the next few years… pretty much the same thing that went on for the last few years.  Those downtowns are far and few between.

Things stayed the same for some of my early years in DuBois. A downtown DuBois funeral director, Cork Mohney, told me, that about five years or so before I got to DuBois, a mobster bought the great building across the street from his funeral Home.  The mobster went to jail and one of the nicest buildings in the town needed to be torn down because no one took care of the building while the mobster was in jail.

A part of Cork’s description of the mobster’s entourage stays with me until today… as he said… ”Barry, and he was with a woman who was obviously not from here.”

It could even be a casual volunteer that gets things going topsy-turvy, someone who speaks up at a meeting or public gathering and has concern or praise for a project or an issue. Trying to be inclusive, many times this volunteer will be asked to take a position on a committee and accept a key assignment. When you never see or hear from that person again, many times too much time has elapsed to complete the task. A key element of your program fails and your course of progression has changed forever.

To make things worse… it is all random. The topsy-turvey volunteer could have easily stayed home and washed their hair that night… the mobster could have been tipped off that there was a trap and the great building with the cast iron front would have remained and Cork could have checked out the blonde woman with the heavy makeup for years to come.

For a downtown manager to be successful, they need to stay flexible and never accept anything as being “for sure” until it happens. I call it advantage programming. A manager needs to take advantage of anything that comes his or her way if they think that it will help the downtown. One needs to be prepared to make lemonade from the lemons when something goes sour in the town. An immediate response to a preliminary course of action always helps. One must be agile in their thinking and creative in the approach to enable success.

It is important to recognize the goal of the organization when the manager is trying to buffer the randomness that is life. It is important that one does not react for the sake of reacting, and that there is a group decision making process through which things can be sorted out. Then again, when that process takes place, you are subject to the randomness of that group. There are times when there are people with inborn prejudices against something, may be more vocal and sway the group from the remedy most likely to work based upon some faulty logic. 

When faulty logic happens, the only thing I demand is that we do not use a wives’ tale or some axiom for making a decision. “Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered,” “assumptions make an ass of u and me.” I hate when people say stuff like that as a way to influence decisions. Make a little comedy… get everyone to laugh along… and really how do you respond to something like that? Voila, you are headed down a road because of a pig’s ability to digest grain. It is sad but randomly... stuff happens.

The heartbreak of this is that many people put time and effort into doing something and for politeness, for political correctness, programs should not go off track. The community cannot stop someone from dying and letting their estate go to hell in a hand basket. The only thing they can do is not create another emergency to deal with the first emergency.