On the way into work in Clayton, I pass by Sherrys Signature Cheesecakes on Main Street, owned by longtime friends Sherry and Ken Mitchell. Recently, on a couple of Saturdays, my wife and I have stopped in for a late-afternoon dessert. We highly recommend the sweet fare.
But the trips into Clayton on the weekend have been more than filling; they have also been instructive.
What strikes me most is the difference in Saturday traffic in downtown Clayton compared to downtown Smithfield, home to my other office. On a Saturday morning, the only cars parked in downtown Smithfield are in front of The Diner. By midday, the traffic has spread to Gandolfos, the sandwich shop, and to the Howell Theatre, home to discount movies. But otherwise, its easy to park in downtown Smithfield on a Saturday.
Downtown Clayton on a Saturday is a different story. Cars fill the on-street parking, thanks in part to its farmers market but also because downtown remains home to a critical mass of shops and restaurants. It no doubt helps that Claytons population is growing while Smithfields is stagnant.
But more than population, the very nature of downtown Smithfield has changed from the days when Belk anchored Market Street. Most important is the expansion of government, both county and town. The Town of Smithfield razed a storefront to make way for its new town hall; the county razed several more for its law-enforcement center. It also built its jail annex on a parking lot.
As government expanded, so did the businesses that depend on it, mostly lawyers and bail bondsmen, who now occupy spaces that stores once called home.
This is not to say government was wrong to build new space. Smithfields former town hall, with its three stories and a basement, was always ill-suited for doing the publics business. County government, meanwhile, expanded as Johnstons population ballooned.
Clayton government expanded too, but instead of razing storefronts, it renovated an old school.
And therein lies in the lesson for towns that want to help make their downtowns places people will go after hours and on weekends. Its OK for government to grow as needed but not at the expense of storefronts where people can spend their dollars.