I find it interesting to watch how cities react when they face similar struggles that we find in small, hometown communities.
The most recent case-in-point is the struggle caused by vacant storefronts in Tulsa as large retailers close-up shop.
The reason why? People are shopping differently...thanks to the Internet and e-commerce. Amazon and other online retailers have, no doubt, played a large role in this changing landscape. Many feel like a Tulsa World reader who responded online to a story about the store closings, “People are buying more things online instead of going to the stores. I, myself, am guilty of that....it’s easier to have things delivered.”
Tulsa malls are losing anchor tenants such as Macy’s. Other giants such as Sears and Kmart are closing stores by the dozens. J.C. Penney has announced it will be closing stores. Gordman’s, Radio Shack and others have seen better days financially. Other stores are downsizing their retail floor space as their online presence, warehouses and fulfillment centers grow.
All this adds up to a lot of empty square footage and city commerce experts are grappling for creative answers.
We’ve had that same quandary for years right here in downtown Cleveland. Drive by today and you’ll see no less than three storefront windows covered in brown paper. A few others that once housed small town retail have become storage buildings. Years ago, when we first faced the problem of losing retailers, several storefronts were repurposed for professionals such as attorneys, doctors and healthcare companies, helping to provide the look of an occupied and active downtown.
Of course, emptiness isn’t the only problem with vacant buildings, it also equals a dip in sales tax revenue that towns and cities count on in order to function and progress.
An article in Tuesday’s Tulsa World reminded how creative thinking and deep pockets have helped such former retail locations like the former Eastland Mall, which is now Eastgate Metroplex, a call center. The once fully-loaded Fontana Shopping Center now has a church occupying the largest portion along with gyms, a restaurant or two and few retailers. As Macy’s closes its Promenade location, some have forecasted eventual doomsday for that mall and suggest that its neighbors, OU’s Tulsa complex, will surely be willing buyers, ready to repurpose it for education sake.
In most cases, small towns like Cleveland don’t have access to those “deep pockets” capable of exciting transformations for the purpose of re-energizing dead space into something vital and thriving.
Yet, look how fortunate we’ve been with the ultra-generous gift of the late Jay C. Byers. Without his help our local library, housed in a former elementary school building, would not be what it is today. But Byers-like generosity simply doesn’t happen often.
Until it does — for both towns and large cities — the best bet to rip that stained brown paper off the windows of empty buildings, is to get creative at the level you’re dealt.
For a long while, I know it has been the Chamber of Commerce’s intent to create and keep current a listing of available retail and professional space so when that occasional call does come, we are able to provide quick and accurate information about square footage, costs, landlords and phone numbers. Maybe the Chamber or other interested organization could have a creative think tank meeting and come up with various ideas they think that could “make it” in Cleveland and pitch those ideas — there could actually be willing investors for the right ideas that have value and make sense.
As someone who has experienced, reacted (to some degree) and daily deals with the impact of life changes caused by the Internet, I fully accept that times have and will continue to change. For those of you who actually pick up this newspaper and find time to read, page to page, I thank you, as I realize others feel they’re already caught up on the “news” thanks to instant coverage provided by social media. That’s why we have an online presence, too. But, it can’t stop there. We’ve all got to get creative, if we’re going to put up the “open” sign up in our window tomorrow.