Main street's past is key to its future

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In order to understand Main Street America, it's necessary to travel back in time, Frank Gray told a Steamboat Springs audience last week.

"In order to understand downtown business districts, what makes them successful and what makes them fail, you have to go a long way back in history and look at what caused them in the first place," Gray said.

Gray, who is the community and economic development director for the city of Lakewood, said the origins of downtown districts have to do with cool, clear water. He was a member of a panel at Economic Summit 2003 that explored the future of traditional downtown shopping districts.

The foundation of modern downtowns can be found in a bygone time when the only source of safe domestic water was a community well, usually in the center of a village, Gray said.

"Sooner or later, anyone in the community, regardless of their stature, had to come to the well," Gray said. Eventually, merchants realized they would have a built-in customer base if they spread their rug in close proximity to the well.

Too often, in modern downtowns, business people have forgotten why people come back to the "well," he suggested.

Successful downtowns need to make their first priority giving people a reason to gather there. Commerce is a secondary purpose.

Boulder changed its downtown forever when it developed the Pearl Street Mall, and Estes Park succeeded in redeveloping its downtown by altering its streetscape to embrace the river it formerly backed up to.

Lyman Orton, owner of the Vermont Country Stores and mail order business, said his business has continued to prosper in small Vermont towns by forming an indelible relationship with customers who return year after year.

Orton said one of his two stores is located 25 miles from the nearest interstate in the town of Weston, population 600. Yet it averages annual sales of $512 per square foot.

"We stamp a memory into our customers' vacation shopping psyche," Orton said. "That involves what's inside our stores as well as how we play up the whole Vermont mystique. We promote and celebrate the place of Vermont, not just in words, but in actions by supporting our local communities and state-wide organizations that protect Vermont's heritage. We create memories -- special memories matter to bring customers back again and again. It's the little things that count."

Founded in 1946, the Vermont Country Stores stock household goods that are difficult to find, and for many customers, represent a link to the past. For example, umbrella-style clotheslines, oilcloth tablecloths, peppermint foot cream and wicker baskets designed to store backup rolls of toilet paper out of sight on the top of the toilet tank.

At a later Economic Summit session, Orton said his company is very proactive in its efforts to let customers know that they are valued by the Vermont Country Store.

"I think of it as low-hanging fruit," Orton said. "It's the easiest thing you can do. But unless you take strong active measures, (customers) are not going to feel it."

Reaching out to customers on a personal level is particularly important for his mail-order business, Orton said.

"We've done everything in our power to bridge that gap," Orton said. "If you don't do it all day, every day," it won't be effective.

Garry Baker, senior planner for the city of Montrose, said his community has established itself as a regional shopping destination on Colorado's extreme Western Slope, and supports the nearby resort communities of Ouray and Telluride.

Baker said he authored a set of standards for the development of big-box retail stores in his community. Those standards were originally written to apply to buildings of 25,000 square feet or more. Recently, they have been revised to apply to all commercial buildings of 10,000 square feet or more.

"Things like controlling growth really aren't on the table," in Montrose, Baker said. "They aren't things we consider."

He suggested that the Montrose model might not be something Steamboat Springs would consider in the future. Instead, it might be more applicable to Hayden or Craig, he said.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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