At Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, there was a brief presentation from two board members of Downtown Whitewater (DTWW), with others from that group also in attendance. In the life of a small town, success of merchants matters greatly. (I’m opposed to pitting local independent merchants against local chain stores, but I very much support local businesses generally.)
Years ago, when we first saw a Main Street program in Whitewater, there was considerable attention to the effort. The Great Recession later swept across all America, and despite it all, many of our local merchants survived where one might have feared they would succumb (difficult though that time was, and still is).
Now, with a national recovery slowly underway, and years since its founding, DTWW and her merchants look to the new year.
I’ll consider a few points from that presentation.
New Merchants. DTWW has new merchants moving in, and if there’s a single gain that a group could have, it’s the ability to attract and retain businesses.
Nothing kills the way emptiness kills. There’s a place for marketing, and a place for the look and feel that façade grants bring, but new merchants are the ultimate marketing, occupied storefronts the best façade.
DTWW’s ability to draw new merchants is an unalloyed gain.
Memorandum of Understanding. DTWW is under a clearer arrangement with the city, by the way, that makes accountability more easily reviewed.
Fundraising. Most of the money received for DTWW now comes from private sources or in-kind donations. That’s a key accomplishment: one may be rightly suspicious of many government-private partnerships, but by design and inclination this program moves toward greater self-reliance.
An Emerging, Entrepreneurial Business Culture. There’s a point in presentation where Dave Saalsaa, DTWW board president, mentions that DTWW is looking to encourage UW-Whitewater grads to stay and be part of an expanding business culture (such as along Whitewater Street).
He’s right to mention this possibility: there is a real possibility now of an emerging business culture for Whitewater, of independent restaurants and independent merchants. It has not come – and it will not come – from big grants, state or federal schemes, or big institutions’ heavy hands.
But we are starting to see it here, after many years of approaches that mostly made things worse, or at least no better.
After headlines, after exclamation points, after Big Ideas, there’s something better: the actual accomplishments of smaller, independent business people with good ideas.
Once a culture like this takes root, even in a few places, it can spread quickly and inspire others.
The efforts of an emerging group of small business people, striving mostly on their own, with a new, hip and more fashionable presentation to this town, may be an important development of the next few years.
Communications. How the group communicates among its leaders, members, and the community is something I’m sure they’ll sort out. If it goes well for them, they’ll advance their goals; if not, they’ll have difficulty meeting them. Communicating should, after all, be a simple routine, like respiration.
It’s only when one notices it that it’s a problem.
Whatever hard work it takes to get there, though, is something the group can and almost surely can accomplish.
Pig in the Park and the Jack Hanna Animal Show. Downtown Whitewater is planning two events, among others, for next year: Pig in the Park near Cravath Lake, and a return of Jack Hanna’s animal show (this time in collaboration with the university).
Events like this, if handled well, endear people to the city. They’re not a substitute for prosperity, but can advance an optimism that prosperity requires.
My youngest attended the Jack Hanna show when it was here, and very much enjoyed it.
DTWW is a small group, and these events are sure to be demanding to them. Whitewater can manage big, annual events very well (our Fourth of July celebration comes to mind), but it takes more effort and planning when the group is small.
One simple suggestion: each and every volunteer should carry a sheet with the behind-the-scenes work for the day, the public schedule of events, the mobile numbers of every other volunteer, and all volunteers’ designated responsibilities.
That way, whenever anyone asks about a given event or with a question, everyone volunteering will have access to information or a directory listing others of whom they can ask.
Full storefronts and a full calendar are both beneficial.
Façades. In the end, it seems to be that nothing matters more than occupancy, but I see that the ‘look and feel’ of a shop matters.
(About this topic, I’m thinking of Virginia Postrel’s excellent book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness. Postrel’s a libertarian and former editor at Reason who rightly sees that a free society and economy offer the best opportunities for creative, inspiring design. )
Style does matter, and so façades do matter. TID 4’s dried up; we’ll have to go on in any event. Fundraising from private sources to provide money for new façades certainly has its place.
2014. Lasting gains won’t come from big organizations or so-called big players: it’s been tried and it’s failed.
Whitewater will have to look toward gains from small entrepreneurs, often unheralded, yet truly meaningful to the town’s confidence and long-term prospects.
We have a good chance for a better year ahead.