The Winning Formula

Can chain stores and local personality co-exist?


by Matt Edens

Itâ’s official; the Market Square buildings seized by the Feds in the West family marijuana trafficking and money-laundering bust are to be auctioned off Oct. 24. The prospect of a new player owning such a big chunk of the Square raises questions about the locally owned businesses housed within two of the three buildings. Not officially part of the sale, all could theoretically continue operating as before, paying rent to the new landlord as theyâ’ve been paying to the government during the past 15 months of limbo. But now that the Square is a demonstrated draw and downtownâ’s anchor cineplex is in place, thereâ’s also some concern that rents will rise and the local merchants may be left in the lurch.

Compounding that worry is what sort of shops and eateries could replace themâ"particularly the prospect of chains coming to Market Square. It was half in jest, but at least one online commentator raised the horrifying specter of Hooters and Chuck E. Cheese. (You know, the restaurant thatâ’s famous for its larger than life-sized anatomical attractions; and that pizza place for kidsâ)

Can chains coexist with a revitalized downtown and a vibrant local economy? Itâ’s a question more and more cities are asking. And some are taking it beyond marketing efforts encouraging residents to â“buy localâ” and â“eat local.â” Restrictions to curb chain retailers and restaurants are gaining currency in an increasing number of municipalities across the country. Upscale seaside towns such as Nantucket, Carmel and the waterfront San Diego suburb of Coronado and larger cities like San Francisco and Portland, Me., have limited the number, size, and locations of chains and, in some cases, banned â“formula businessesâ” outright. The term, covering both corporate-owned chains and independently owned franchises, can apply to retail stores, restaurants, hotels and other establishments that are required by contract to adopt standardized services, methods of operation, decor, uniforms, architecture or other features virtually identical to businesses located in other communities. The definition, by the way, comes courtesy of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington lobbying group that helps communities across the country change local ordinances to support self-reliance.

Preferring to shop local, I can understand the sentiment behind the effort. But isnâ’t there something a little funny about all this â“formulaâ” business, particularly that bit about shops â“virtually identical to businesses located in other communities?â” After all, while downtown Knoxville has yet to fill all the niches, the independently owned retail and restaurant offerings in most rejuvenated downtowns/small towns can be surprisingly formulaic. Thereâ’s the toy store for overachieving kids whose parents appreciate the â“Three Râ’sâ” and the â“Three Eâ’sâ” (educational, European, and expensive), the whimsical clothing store for women who like hats, the purveyor of upscale outdoor gear, the kitschy novelty shop selling ribald and risqué gag gifts (typically with a large gay-friendly section...), the doggie bakery/toy shop, that shop selling â“Life is Goodâ” gear, the brewpub and the vegan-friendly pizza place.

The National Trust for Historic Preservationâ’s Main Street Center even offers an official formula for using unique local businesses to revive dormant downtowns. Currently, the program has 1,200 active affiliates nationwide. (A city or town must meet some pretty strict requirements in order to use the Main Street name and Trust logo).

But, for the pinnacle of self-parody in these well-meaning efforts to preserve a cityâ’s unique local identity, drive over the mountain to Asheville. Bumper stickers begging residents to â“Keep Asheville Weirdâ” have become increasingly popular of late, mimicking, almost word for word, similar campaigns in Louisville, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Boulder, Santa Cruz, and Portland, Ore. All are based on the original Austin Independent Business Alliance slogan advising folks to â“Keep Austin Weird.â” Imagine the money they could have raised selling franchises.


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