By N. David Milder
We Need More Than Pollyannaish or Wishful Thinking for Our Downtowns to Recover and Thrive
We are in the midst of what many observers have called the deepest crisis this nation has faced in many decades. It has been especially injurious to our downtowns because it has necessitated massive social distancing that makes it impossible for so many downtown entities, — e.g., shops, eateries, offices, movie theaters – to function properly or profitably. In this situation, it is understandable if downtown leaders and stakeholders look for signs that their future will be considerably better. Hope is perhaps the most underestimated, yet essential ingredient of any downtown revitalization or recovery. Still, if our downtowns are to recover, we must face realities and overcome some exceptionally strong challenges, while taking advantage of any new opportunities that this terrible crisis either creates or reveals.
In recent weeks a number of articles have appeared that have been quite pollyannaish about the recovery of our downtowns based on either wishful thinking or sloppy analysis. These puff pieces may be good for instilling hope, and perhaps are even needed. However, they are no substitutes for the kind of critical thinking and contingent planning that we need to start doing now if we are to robustly recover as quickly as possible.
Will Entrepreneurial Gold Dust Really Fall to Spark Our Economic Recovery?
The Wishful Trend. One retail expert has recently written:
“When all the dust settles, the post-lockdown era should provide a boost to downtown areas, in part due to newly unemployed but highly skilled restaurant and retail workers opening new businesses in downtowns where rent prices will trend downward.
The pandemic has left millions of highly skilled workers from the retail and food and beverage industries unemployed and eager to work. Many of these people are highly motivated to start their own businesses, creating an unparalleled pool of talent and potential entrepreneurial interest.
In a recent Forbes article, Bernhard Schroeder wrote: ‘27 million working-age Americans, nearly 14 percent, are starting or running new businesses. And Millennials and Gen-Z are driving higher interest in entrepreneurship as 51 percent of the working population now believes that there are actually good opportunities to start companies.’”1
A Reality Check. However, Schroeder was citing data from the “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor United States Report 2017” published by Babson College in 2018. It must be noted that:
- The GEM data are from before the swift and powerful economic decline the Covid19 crisis caused. There is no telling yet of precisely how the crisis has diminished the number of nascent firms or killed off the young firms under 42 months old that the GEM studies look at. A reliable picture of the situation may not be possible until the CARES subventions time out.
- Although the 2017 Gem study found that the Wholesale/Retail sector accounted for the highest proportion of the nascent and young firms in the United States, 21% , it had not grown from the previous year and was “dramatically lower than the average of the 23 innovation-driven economies, 31%.” 2 Just a year later the Gem study found that the finance, real estate and business services accounted for 27% of the new and nascent firms, while retail, at 26%, still considerably trailed the other high income economies at 36% (see chart below from the 2018 Gem study.) 3
- Retail has long been a downtown storefront space use, but in pre-crisis years many downtown leaders were worried about their ability to attract and maintain retail tenants. The Gem study showed that we were not generating as many retail startups as other innovation driven economies. And that was in relatively good economic times.
- The fastest growing sectors for entrepreneurship were those that involved technology and knowledge – possibly good for generating office demand , but not exactly the types of firms noted for tenanting lots of downtown storefronts.
- The Millennials and Gen-Zers are among the two most economically screwed generations in living memory, so while many of them may have had an interest in entrepreneurship in 2017, even then raising capital for such a venture was probably a frequent barrier to actual entry. Many of them are so strapped for income that they are still living with their parents, and Covid19 has increased their numbers. Raising capital was probably less of a challenge for those with gig or freelance sole proprietorship, but those “firms” also don’t fill many downtown storefronts.
- Most importantly, and more precisely, we don’t know how startup rates will be impacted in the sectors that are most likely to produce tenant prospects for downtown storefronts – or which sectors they might be. How the continued growth of online retail sales and their integration into omnichannel operations will play out in terms of the amount, kind and location of physical commercial spaces remains to be seen. While most pamper niche operations have low initial capital costs and relatively low operating costs so they can be reconstituted with comparative ease and speed during a recovery, there is a real question about the availability of the types of consumer discretionary spending dollars they depend on.
- Nor do we know how the Covid crisis’s economic impacts will influence current and future levels of interest and intent in becoming an entrepreneur. Most importantly, we don’t know how interest and intent will be impacted in the sectors that are most likely to produce tenant prospects for downtown storefronts. The blue line in the above chart from the 2018 GEM study shows the level of people aged 18-64 who intended to become an entrepreneur within a few months. The path is upward, though it shows much fluctuation, a Great Recession climb, and a bumpy 2016-2018 ride. The red line shows the percentage of the 18-64 population who are either a nascent entrepreneur or owner-manager of a new business, e.g., between 3 and 42 months old. It dived through the start of the Great Recession and then had a mostly upward path since. Obviously, these firms benefited from a recovering economy. Unfortunately, GEM does not provide a sector breakdown. Given that the constructive destruction in the retail industry and serious problems in several parts of the restaurant industry had already appeared, there is reason to suspect that nascent and young firms in those industries were not doing as well as those in other industries.
- Recent losses of retail jobs have been huge, and industry reports indicate it will continue to grow through this year, as record numbers of retail stores are closed (perhaps over 20,000), and many chains enter bankruptcy. Are more retail workers, past or present, likely to find appealing startup opportunities in this kind of retail industry than in pre-crisis years? Will other entrepreneurs find the opportunities in the retail sector more potentially rewarding and less risky as those to be found in other sectors?
- The attempt to see unemployed retail workers as an asset that will convert into an above average level of new retail startups as we recover may carry with it the implication that unemployment creates a high level of job need to which heightened entrepreneurship is a response. The 2018 GEM study presents data on the number of nascent and young firms (the total TEA) that were “necessity driven (see blue line in chart below). The necessity driven firms over all the years studied steadily account for a relatively small portion of all TEA firms. While the Great Recession did increase their number for some years, overall their number did not change all that much, and never reached levels where they might spearhead startup led downtown recoveries.
- B&M retail stores are taking on new functions and that may mean the skill sets of former retail employees are increasingly outdated and provide no advantage for starting up new types of retail and restaurant operations. For example, a new type of department store is appearing, — e.g., Neighborhood Goods, Showfields, b8ta – that sells curated collections of merchandise created by online birthed merchants.4 Also, the growing number of “ghost kitchens” can reduce the relevance of kitchen skills in the restaurant industry.
- Restaurants, another major source of downtown tenants, also have been clobbered. Prior to the crisis many parts of this sector, e.g. casual dining, were already showing stress. The current need for social distancing and the apparent current danger of indoor dining, makes it very hard for restaurants to make needed profits. Until models for restaurants operating profitably under these conditions emerge, or the crisis significantly abates, will the sector be able to maintain the interest of entrepreneurs and its skilled workforce?
- Here again the competitiveness of the opportunities the restaurant industry offers in terms of potential rewards and risks is very relevant. Restaurants have long had a very high failure rate compared to other industries – and Covid19 has certainly not done anything to diminish that fact. Also, external financing for restaurants has long been relatively hard to get, and their startup costs, if a full kitchen is involved, can be high. Self-financing during a recession and in its recovery years is also likely to be difficult.
- Much is being made about the costs of store space. They typically amount to about 10% of the total sales of restaurants and various studies over the years have found that they are between 8% to 12% for most downtown merchants.5 Rents may indeed be important, but these firms have many other costs such as labor, inventory, insurance., etc., to factor in and be concerned about.
- The Kauffman Foundation’s 2017 State Report on Early-Stage Entrepreneurship found that “the rate of new entrepreneurs ranged from a low of 0.16 percent in Delaware to a high of 0.47 percent in Wyoming, with a median of 0.30 percent. This considerable geographic variation certainly might also characterize the emergence of new entrepreneurs as we recover economically from the Covid crisis. It certainly suggests that entrepreneurship levels are dependent on a set on conditions, not just the cost of space, and will vary geographically with their strengths and weaknesses.
This is not to say that the recovery will not see either new downtown firms appearing or the full reopening of downtown firms that had suspended their operations. The question is how many of these startups and recovering firms can fill downtown storefronts with well activated and magnetic uses? Will they bring downtown vacancies back to acceptable levels? Will they bring customer traffic back to or above prior levels? Or will they just fill a few vacancies with drab uses that attract weak flows of customer traffic? Right now the difficulty of answering those questions is compounded by the fact that we probably won’t know the full extent and dimensions of our downtown vacancy problems until after the CARES subsidies time out, when the downtown operations then have to support themselves from “normal” type operations.
Is There a Real and Strong Startup Trend That Downtowns Can Ride to Recovery? If one goes back to some Kauffman Foundation studies about entrepreneurship in the decade or so prior to Covid19, one sees that there was not any steady trend of growing entrepreneurship. Indeed, there were ups and downs, with some concerns about it stalling or even seriously declining. 6 Covid19 may be sparking a number of startups in industries that help individuals and firms cope with the crisis, but I have not observed, or heard from professional friends, or seen any published reports that claim it is causing lots of new downtown storefront-filling firms to open. There is no data-proven strong startup trend for downtowns, especially in smaller cities, to ride to their economic recovery.
In sharp contrast, there are loads of data to show that remote work increased enormously in response to the crisis and lots of surveys that show that significant numbers of both workers and employers now think their remote work arrangements will continue on into the post crisis era. These are signs that remote work is a trend that has a good chance of lasting. There are no comparable data signals for resurgent entrepreneurship in the sectors that might occupy downtown storefronts, such as retail and restaurants.
Do We Just Sit on Our Hands? The settling of the crisis’s dust may or may not occur anytime soon. Whether it happens quickly or slowly can be pivotal. As John Maynard Keyes famously wrote “In the long run we are all dead.” The full impacts of other trend breezes such as remote work, changes in commuting patterns, and e-shopping may well take a decade or more to play out. They in turn may have big impacts on the demand for downtown storefront spaces, space uses, and occupancy rates.
What will happen to our downtowns during those years? Should downtown stakeholders and management organizations then just wait for the dust to settle and hope that new startup merchants will appear? If not, then what should/can they do?
Since it is far from certain that entrepreneurial gold dust will fall from heaven as the Covid crisis ebbs, perhaps it is valuable for downtown leaders to do some contingent development planning about what they can and will do to cultivate the types of small businesses that can tenant their district’s storefronts. Here, again, the variation in local conditions will probably mean a corresponding variation in responses. And prudence suggests anticipating a process of trials, errors, learning and adapting.
Community Supported Enterprises. For many years prior to the Covid crisis, in downtowns and Main Streets that were suffering storefront vacancies, severely weakened retail, and even food deserts, some local leaders created successful solution paths to these challenges. In our Covid economic recovery period, many other downtowns of all sizes may find these solution paths worthy of consideration. These solutions were most apt to succeed in situations where profitable operations were possible, but investors considered the rewards of entering these downtowns or Main Streets lower and riskier than the opportunities they were being offered elsewhere. Some of these solution paths are:
- Using crowdfunding to help open and/or maintain businesses strongly wanted by the local community
- Using Community Owned Enterprises to save and operate key commercial operations
- Using local social assets, such as social clubs, to leverage business development 7
- Towns buying and operating failing essential retail operations, such as groceries.
Using such business models, and any riffs upon them, may help many downtowns and Main Streets recover their vibrancy over the next few years. They may be essential components of a New Deal program to revive retail. For more information about many of these business models see The Spotlight group of articles in the forthcoming Fall Issue of the American Downtown Revitalization Review at https://theadrr.com/ that will appear in September 2020.
Creating Supportive Small Town Entrepreneurial Environments.8 While much attention has been given to the creation of Innovation Districts, this concept is so large scale and complicated that it is only really applicable to big city downtowns and neighborhoods that are present in about 349 of our cities. Our remaining approximately 19,000 incorporated places also need a supportive startup culture and environment, but one that is simpler, less expensive to create and operate, and appropriately aspirant in its growth objectives. That is especially true at a time when many, if not most, downtowns will probably be striving to cultivate their own startups to occupy their storefronts. Such a Small Town Entrepreneurial Environment (STEE) might include: social places for new and small business operators to meet and network; access to viable funding sources; effective technical assistance; joint marketing programs, and affordable spaces in reasonable condition. It basically can take many existing downtown assets, such as libraries, bars, coffeeshops, makers places, community colleges, a downtown organization that invests in businesses and has niche marketing programs, etc., to create an informal district-wide business incubator and accelerator, Libraries in particular, are emerging as critically valuable STEE assets. Unfortunately, most downtown organizations do not yet see being actively engaged in small business development and expansion as a proper role for them to play. Nor do they exhibit any comfort or skills in playing that role when they do. A contingent planning effort could focus on how downtown leaders would foster the emergence of STEEs, should the need for it arise. This will likely entail a reappraisal of the roles the downtown organization should and can play.
Small Merchant Training. The Covid crisis has reinforced the growth of two important nascent merchant trends:
- Small and micro firms were weaving increased online activities with the operations of their brick and mortar stores. Customers ordering online and then picking their orders at the curb or at the storefront is one example of this.
- More small merchants were tapping customers in distant market areas via their online storefronts and attending distant trade shows and fairs.
A contingent planning effort also could focus on how downtown leaders could encourage and train more of our smaller downtown merchants to use an omnichannel marketing operation that would help them to capture more sales dollars from both local and seldom before penetrated distant markets.
However, even prior to the Covid19 crisis, small merchant training has long been a challenge. In my experience, merchant training programs are often advocated, but seldom effectively implemented. The vast majority of them underperform because they ignore basic merchant needs and behavior patterns. Far too often, they want to EDUCATE the small merchants, and make them, for example, marketing savvy or bookkeepers. That can take a lot of merchant time and effort while providing them with more information than they have any need for near-term or even probably well into the future. Instead, what the merchants want is not to be taken to school, but actual solutions to their specific immediate problems. They want action steps that are credibly viable, affordable and easy to do. They don’t really want courses, workshops, or seminars. And they prefer not leaving their places of business.
Also, in my experience, many small merchants are resistant to any suggestion that they are not doing things as well as they could be done, while others find it hard to ask for help even when they badly need it. Small merchants are often small merchants because of their need for independence and a strong sense of their own efficacy.
Merchant training programs would probably be more effective if they:
- Consider small merchants behaviors and attitudes as much as they do the information the program’s experts believe the merchants should learn
- Give merchants access to training that is closely tied to their immediate needs, and less into making them better, more knowledgeable entrepreneurs. Blasphemously, feed them fish, don’t try to teach them how to fish. Small merchants play too many roles to be experts in all of them, and they lack the dollars to hire others to take on some of them.
- When possible, facilitate merchants learning from their peers whom they know, like and respect. In turn, that means it’s very productive to identify in a downtown those merchants who can be models and mentors for other merchants, and then to leverage them.
- Start off by identifying the low lying fruit that can produce the quick wins that will enable the training program to swiftly show other nearby merchants what it might do for them.
Perhaps some of national organizations such as IDA, IEDC, and National Main Street can develop such improved small merchant programs that can then be easily tailored to local conditions. Leaving their development solely to organizations such as SCORE or the SBDCs is a massive mistake. A strong need for such programs existed well before the Covid19 crisis, and will very likely far out last it.
1) Robert Gibbs. “After Lockdown, New Opportunities for Downtown Shopping Districts” at https://dirt.asla.org/2020/05/13/the-pandemic-will-lead-to-a-revitalization-of-main-street-retail/ Matthew Wagner wrote an interesting article on the Main Street Blog that also extolled our penchant to be entrepreneurs as a path to recovery, but most of the piece usefully went into the need for various things that I would associate with creating what I called above a STEE. See: Matthew Wagner,” Main Street America. Main Spotlight: COVID-19 Likely to Result in Increased Entrepreneurship Rates” June 9, 2020. https://www.mainstreet.org/blogs/national-main-street-center/2020/06/09/covid-19-likely-to-result-in-increased-entrepreneu
2) Julian E. Lange, Abdul Ali, Candida G. Brush, Andrew C. Corbett, Donna J. Kelley, Phillip H. Kim, and Mahdi Majbouri. “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor United States Report 2017” published by Babson College in 2018, p. 27. https://www.gemconsortium.org/economy-profiles/united-states
3) See: Julian E. Lange, Candida G. Brush, Andrew C. Corbett, Donna J. Kelley, Phillip H. Kim, Mahdi Majbouri, and Siddharth Vedula Global Entrepreneurship Monitor United States Report 2018” published by Babson College in 2019 https://www.gemconsortium.org/economy-profiles/united-states
4) I want to thank Mike Berne for bringing these stores to my attention.
5) See for example: Kate Paape and Bill Ryan, University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension Division, and Errin Welty, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. “A Comparison of Rental Rates Charged for Downtown Commercial Space: A Market Snapshot of Wisconsin Communities”. August 2019 https://economicdevelopment.extension.wisc.edu/files/2019/10/Downtown-Rent-Study-100119.pdf
6) See: “Victor Hwang Testimony Before U.S. House Committee on Small Business, Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Tax and Capital Access,” February 15, 2017
7) See: Norman Walzer and Jessica Sandoval, “Emergence and Growth of Community Supported Enterprises.” Center for Governmental Studies at NIU. 2016. https://www.cgs.niu.edu/Reports/Emergence-and-Growth-of-Community-Supported-Enterprises.pdf
8) N. David Milder. “Toward an Effective Economic Development Strategy for Smaller Communities (under 35,000).”