Narrow Focus: Can Downtown Go Beyond Being Just an Entertainment District?

I hate spending money on things I need. Somehow it doesn’t bother me the other way around—spending money on things I like is, in fact, often enjoyable. But every now and then, I’m faced with forking over dollars for things I simply have to have. The most recent notable purchase from that category was eyeglasses. I’m at that age where my vision is predictably deteriorating, and every so many years I have to get reexamined and buy new glasses. They aren’t cheap. But until this last time around, at least it was convenient. Unfortunately, downtown’s only remaining optician, Clancy’s Optical, ceased doing business at the corner of Clinch and Gay Street a while back. There’s still going to be a Clancy’s there. But it’s now it is Clancy’s Tavern & Whiskey House. Presumably glasses will be filled. Just not prescriptions for glasses.

I like bars. And restaurants. A lot. And downtown’s options in that regard have steadily increased over the past few years. In general, that’s fine.  As I said, I like spending money on things I like. And having a variety of places to do so seems like a great thing. But what’s not so great is that it’s starting to seem like almost every time I hear of a new business opening downtown, it’s a bar or restaurant. Sometimes, as is the case with Five Bar, which is slated to open at the corner of Gay and Union in the former Arby’s location, it’s a new restaurant taking over another restaurant’s space. Coffee and Chocolate’s success led to adding an alternative location with expanded offerings only a few blocks away from its shop on Union Avenue, filling the gap left by yet another dining spot. But there was something about Clancy’s. I just hated to see a bar/restaurant taking over a space that had been occupied by a retail business for so many years. Especially when it came time for new glasses.

Of course it would be nice to have everything I need within walking distance downtown, in addition to those things that I just want. But that’s not the real issue. Despite the odd, new retail opening from time to time, it seems like downtown is tilting more and more toward becoming an entertainment district. In some ways, that makes sense. We have the Tennessee and Bijou theaters, both renowned venues, as well as the Regal cinema. But none of that is particularly new. The historic theaters have been around for years. And the Regal occupies some of the same space where the Riviera was showing films when I was a kid. But at that time, downtown offered a much broader spectrum of retail stores.

It’s nice to have a plethora of options for disposable income, but not very balanced. The reason I’m concerned about becoming an entertainment district is that they are notoriously boom and bust. One need look no further than the Old City over the past few decades, with its repeated cycles of being a hotbed of nightlife followed by decline, to see the pitfalls. Even in its current iteration, it’s dominated by eateries and clubs. Meanwhile, another retail business has abandoned those environs for points west. Crush Boutique, formerly on Jackson Avenue, is making the move to Bearden.

Unless you’re bar hopping (and there’s nothing wrong with bar hopping), odds are you’re only going to patronize one restaurant on any given evening.  But that’s not the case with retail stores. And quite honestly, I’m not sure how many more restaurants downtown can support (though we are bringing them in on wheels now). On the other hand, unless you want to open a Mast General Store or an Urban Outfitters, two fairly large-scale businesses that I have never seen empty, there seems to be a lot of opportunity to benefit from downtown’s resurgence in offering something besides food and drink.  While there’s no guarantee, if you build it, it looks to me like there’s a good chance they will come.

The glasses ended up costing a bundle. That would have been the case whether I’d gotten them at the old Clancy’s or anywhere else. I just wish someone downtown had been there to take the money. I like to nurture my community, and spending money with local businesses is the one of the best ways to do that. But it’s probably best I didn’t hold out for another optician to open up here. The difference with the new lenses is subtle, but substantial.  For example, I could read my car’s speedometer, but it wasn’t until I got the new glasses that I could tell how dusty it was. Maybe it’s sort of the same thing with downtown retail. It’s easy to see the big successes, but not so easy to see the need and potential for smaller victories.

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