Thinking about chains in our unique downtown

In my City Talk column in the Savannah Morning News today, New Year brings changes to Broughton and Congress Streets, I focus briefly on Fuddruckers, which just closed on Broughton Street. Ever since I’ve been writing this column — over 10 years now — I’ve been hearing from readers about how chains will drive out small, locally owned businesses. Most of the local investors interested in economic development, however, have been eager to attract more chains, under the theory that a diversified shopping area that attracts a broad customer base needs a variety of stores.

While downtown Savannah commercial rents increased during the boom years and have probably remained higher in some cases than they should be, it turns out that locally owned places are still competing just fine. As I say in my column:

Evidence from recent years does not support the conclusion that chains will inevitably drive out local businesses. In the case of Fuddruckers, we’re seeing just the opposite: The closing of a chain and the impending opening of a one-of-a-kind spot. Shipwreck Bar & Grill is supposed to open later this year.

And chains sometimes come with chains. Depending on the type of “chain” (a term applied pretty broadly to both locally owned franchises and stores managed by a corporation), sometimes there are large franchise fees, while advertising and marketing are constrained by the corporate brand. At the same time, many locals and visitors consciously seek out local businesses. After Utrecht opened an art supply store downtown, Primary Art Supply began actively to promote itself as a local business — a true opening in the world of marketing.

Readers’ other concern for downtown Savannah — and for many other resurgent downtowns — has been that chains will destroy a sense of uniqueness. In other words, Broughton Street will no longer be uniquely Savannah with GAP, Banana Republic, Panera, Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, Kinko’s, the impending McDonald’s, etc. It’s a matter of perception obviously, but I’ll note that most current Broughton Street businesses — no matter their ownership — occupy spaces that were either vacant or underutilized just a decade ago. If a recognizable chain goes into a vacant building, does it truly change the atmosphere? I don’t think so, but I can see why others do.

Broughton Street should be somewhat resistant to quick changes in its atmosphere because of the existing architecture and infrastructure. Chains for the most part are not going to be interested in the strip’s narrow storefronts. The recognizable names that have taken narrow spaces — like Birkenstock and An American Craftsman — hardly feel a cultural threat. And the larger spaces are hardly attracting cookie cutter enterprises. Urban Outfitters has tailored itself to the gorgeous building that it occupied a couple of years ago. Marc Jacobs is a particularly interesting case of an international name with relatively few locations; the company has beautifully transformed a space that would have been incredibly challenging for a local entrepreneur to renovate, stock, market, and operate. The general gentrification of the street has meant the dwindling of businesses with largely black clientele — that has certainly changed the personality of the street (for the worse I think) but some of those businesses seem to have relocated to spaces in closer proximity to their core shoppers. And few of them seem to have made any conscious effort to tap into the increasing number of tourists over the last 20 years.

Chains can lure shoppers who then have to walk by local spots that have few advertising dollars. Chains can provide opportunities for worker mobility into corporate offices or to other cities.

In sum, I think the fear of chains is largely misplaced. I won’t eat at the McDonald’s coming to Broughton Street, but I don’t think it will have the dire consequences that some expect.

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