Want to Kill Your Downtown? Move Your Customer-Facing Functions Away

I’ve traveled to and met with hundreds of small municipalities. Almost none of them are as fully occupied and vibrant as they once were There are a ton of historic factors for this that I won’t bother to mention here.

While there are a lot of factors a retail establishment control over their success (product, customer service, marketing), there are two factors that drive where a store decides to open and then are largely out of there control once they’re in place: visibility and foot traffic. These factors are also the two over which the Town has the most influence.

So let’s say our town of 5,000 residents is lucky enough to also own the water utility, which has 3,000 customers. In the communities I’ve asked, approximately 15-20% still come in and pay their bill; some are still as high as 40%. Not even counting new and departing customers who may come in to establish or close an account, our small town is driving 600 people per month into Town, (hopefully) getting them out of their cars and potentially performing some other activity while they’re there. When you move it out onto the bypass at the old bank that has that cool drive-through, what’s going to replace that activity? We’re unknowingly trading a newer building for a downtown recession.

A community’s size is not a prerequisite for this insanity. The City of Columbia, SC with 133,000 residents and 375,000 customers just moved their primary collections (as well as most other customer-facing activities) way from their Main Street, reducing foot-traffic downtown by more than 1,000 people each day.

Before you take advantage of that great deal on that building with all that space, consider carefully: am I trading some short-term convenience for the long-term health of my community?

Also published on Medium.

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