In some ways, the early 90s were a scarier time for downtowns in
Northern Michigan than what we face today in the Great Recession.
Nearly 20 years ago, we interviewed Bryan Crough, executive director
of the Downtown Development Authority about the future of downtown
Traverse City. At the time, America was undergoing the recession of
1991-92. Merchants and restaurateurs in Northern Michigan were also
threatened by an invasion of chain stores and eateries.
Back then, there were plans to build the Grand Traverse Mall south of
town; an outlet mall was also in the works; and there were empty
storefronts downtown, similar to those popping up all over America.
WalMart and the big box retailers were sucking Main Streets dry
across the country.
Would downtown survive, we asked Bryan? How could it with all of the
mammoth chain stores moving to the area? He expressed confidence,
despite the gloomy outlook.
Crough called it right: today most downtowns in Northern Michigan are
thriving. In TC, the shopping and dining action runs well after dark,
with downtown streets filled with people strolling throughout the
Despite gaining a beachhead here, several big box stores have come and
gone through the years (Circuit City, Eastern Mountain Sports) along
with a number of chain stores (remember Hudsons? Pranges?). And
today, TCs outlet mall is practically a ghost town.
What happened? Us. The buy local movement had its fans long before
that phrase went viral. Many of us chose to vote with our dollars to
support our downtowns.
Our downtowns also responded with makeovers: hardware stores and other
small town institutions moved on, replaced by boutiques, upscale
restaurants and ethnic dining options. Street fairs and gallery walks
were established, and theaters in Frankfort, Elk Rapids and TC got
makeovers. Downtown quickly became the fun place to be.
These days, buy local is a rallying cry for those who recognize that
you‘ve got to use it or lose it if you want to live in a healthy, fun
community. Its in sync with the local foods movement, which has
been a godsend for area farms, farm markets and independent
Recently, a Shop Your Community Day raised $23,000 in donations for
local nonprofits in Traverse City, with 15% of sales donated to the
customers favorite charity.
What the buy local and local foods movements have in common is
quality that lasts, along with the personal touch, the smile, and the
eye contact that make you feel welcome. You may pay a little more at
times, but thats a small price for enriching your life and your home
Then theres the Internet and the growing push from the mainstream
media to do your shopping online.
I like this comment from a Facebook friend who noted that you shop
online on Cyber Monday, get your stuff on Tuesday, send it back in the
mail because its not right on Wednesday, and go downtown to buy it in
person on Thursday...
Last week, one of our local broadcasters was on the air suggesting
various websites for holiday shopping: It made me think: honey, dont
you know youre putting yourself out of a job when you dont buy
local? Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the
rest of your life...
According to an outfit called the Michigan Main Street Center, $68 of
every $100 you spend at a local business stays in your community.
That compares to $43 for every $100 you spend at a chain store or
That means that when you buy gifts off the Internet, youre sending
your home town a lump of coal for Christmas.
Add to that, how do you buy gifts of music and books in the age of
I used to enjoy buying CDs for presents, but weve moved on to
downloading iTunes, which falls flat in the gift-giving department.
And how do you make a gift of a digital book for the person on your
list who owns an e-reader?
Perhaps an empty box with a note inside: Look for the new Shakira
album in your iTunes.
Not much fun in that.