As part of the month-long celebration of National Preservation Month and its theme “New Age of Preservation: Embark, Inspire, Engage,” it’s important to take a look and the role and impact of independent businesses in preserving the places that house the vast majority of historic buildings: our downtowns, village centers, and neighborhood commercial corridors.
To put it simply: Independent businesses have been and are the backbone of historic communities and downtowns, thereby preserving the buildings, character, culture, and fabric of the community. There are three main reasons why:
1) They are the trailblazers: Our indies are typically the first ones to go into a historic mixed-use commercial district, supplying rent to the property owner, a reason to go to that district to the public, and ultimately taxes to the local community. By running businesses in historic buildings, indies give economic value to that property, enabling it to be maintained for the present and future generations.
2) They are part of the story: Independents bring authenticity to the community table. They may be quirky, crabby, creative and/or chaotic, but they are real. Indies foster a unique vibe for the community they inhabit; they are run by characters that add character to their place. These businesses, already invested in and committed to that place, are also the first to support local causes and events, giving of themselves while enriching the community at large.
3) Recycle. Re-use. Repeat. Local independent businesses cycle so much more of their income in the community where they are located. They are more likely to source locally and work together within their district. There is plenty of researched data on this (for example – here, here, and here.) But then there are the stories – about the business owner in a small Kentucky community who paid his employees with $2 bills one payday, and still found them circulating around town months after the fact. Keeping money local longer is a crucial benefit that strengthens our communities.
Anna Mastroianni, owner of the SOLE shoe store in Westfield, NJ, a Great American Main Street Award winner (2004) notes that as an independent business owner “you get to know and be part of the character of the town and bring to it what you know it will appreciate. To us it’s like having the opportunity to take care of our family, which the Main Street community has become.” And by running a successful business at 201 East Broad Street, SOLE has supported the upkeep and vitality of the landmark historic building where it is located.
In Main Street New Jersey lingo, independents are crucial to growing a community’s economic, physical, social, and civic value. They are what makes a place be not just any place, and by doing so have, either knowingly or unknowingly, saved countless historic buildings. Moving forward, we could just as well say: Preserve historic buildings – Support independent businesses!
About the Author
Jef Buehler has been with Main Street New Jersey and Improvement District Programs since 1996. He created the NJ350 Pop-Up Store Program, a first-of-its kind statewide temporary retail outlet program that covers 12 months and over 1,000 miles across NJ. He’s considered an entrepreneurial thought leader in the downtown revitalization and management field, but more importantly, he gets things done in support of authentic place-based economic growth, one community at a time.