Recently, our Smithfield reporter found herself for the first time in Princeton, where the number of empty storefronts downtown caught her off guard. Welcome to Main Street in the age of Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart, of course, has everything Main Street used to have – groceries, clothing, hardware, prescriptions. It’s even possible to get a haircut and eyeglasses there. And what Wal-Mart doesn’t have, namely appliances, Lowe’s and Home Depot do.
When Wal-Mart arrives in or near a small town, Main Street stores start closing, unable to compete with the retail behemoth on pricing. That dynamic – Wal-Mart’s superior pricing power – isn’t going to change, so the question is how suddenly empty Main Streets reinvigorate themselves.
Smithfield has done so by catering to the courthouse; lawyers and bail bondsmen now occupy buildings that used to house stores. In Clayton, Main Street has rebounded with niche shops and restaurants that serve that town’s growing population.
Princeton, of course, doesn’t have a courthouse, and it doesn’t have a fast-growing population. (What retail growth that has come to Princeton has set up shop on U.S. 70, where it can capture highway travelers.)
We suspect population growth will eventually come to Princeton. Already, growth from Goldsboro has reached nearby Rosewood, so it’s just a matter of time before it reaches Princeton, though time might be decades, not a handful of years.
In the meantime, Princeton, if it chooses, can do what Smithfield did – form a public-private partnership that brings money and expertise to downtown revitalization. In Clayton, businesses don’t levy a separate tax on themselves, but town hall does employ someone who works closely with the Downtown Development Association.
The effort wouldn’t have to be big or expensive. Some successful revitalization efforts have begun with nothing more than small grants that helped pay for storefront facelifts. But our experience is that downtowns don’t remake themselves. They need a little nudge, either from town hall, the private sector or both.