First it was strip shopping centers, then came malls. Today a number of America's surviving downtown business districts are fighting off a new threat - the presence of major retailers and so-called big box stores that spring up in former cornfields, surrounded by seas of asphalt parking lots. Some communities in states like Vermont have tried to fight off the big chains, while others have accepted the inevitability of a Wal-Mart or Target in their towns. But in the small college town of Oberlin, people are creating new partnerships they hope will keep Main Street vital. 90.3's Karen Schaefer has this report.
Karen Schaefer- For decades, the small college town of Oberlin has enjoyed something few other towns its size had - a healthy downtown business district. Fed by the surrounding community and the pocketbooks of nearly three thousand college students, businesses like the local bakery, the five and dime, and the hardware store have flourished for generations. But last year, the Oberlin Co-op, one of the town's oldest stores, closed its doors - leaving the college without a bookstore and the town without its most important retailer.
Baumann- I hated to see the bookstore close, but I understand that. My initial response was somebody has to take this over, we need a bookstore, that's been one of our anchors downtown.
KS- After five months, somebody did take over the former bookstore. Oberlin College bought the building and the business for $1.6 million dollars and re-opened the store in time for Memorial Day weekend. Fran Baumann is president of the city council.
Baumann- I'm glad somebody has it and will be taking it over...But I think my final judgment will be, let's see what happens.
KS- The new store is being managed by the college bookstore division of the chain Barnes & Noble, one of the world's largest booksellers. Baumann says she was initially concerned that the New York giant might not be responsive to the needs of the community and those of the college. But in meetings with town and business leaders, college administrators put those fears to rest. Dan Gardner heads the college's Center for Service and Learning.
Dan Gardner- If I were a cynic in the community, the worst thing I could hear is that the college is doing this out of philanthropy or altruism. That really isn't the case. I think it is more the case is that this is enlightened self-interest on the part of the college.
KS- Gardner believes the college has a vested interest in preserving the quality of life in the community. He says that's why the college recently launched a campaign to actively support the town's economic viability. But a few weeks ago, a new challenge appeared on the horizon. An out-of-town developer announced a proposal to build an unnamed big box store on 125 acres of farmland in Pittsfield Township on Oberlin's southern outskirts. Maryanne Cochrane - whose family has owned the Ben Franklin store in downtown Oberlin since 1935 - concedes she's worried.
Maryanne Cochrane- I think what we've seen with rural America pretty much, you know, you go into these small towns and well, there is no downtown. So we hope we're not next.
KS- Cochrane says if a big retail store does open just outside of town, she'll do what she's always done - try to find a way to adapt.
MC- If a big box store comes in, there may be departments that you don't even carry anymore. And then you look for something that maybe they don't have...You have to constantly, you know, change with the times.
KS- Helping Cochrane and other downtown merchants survive is Kate Reagan's job. Reagan is director of the chamber of commerce and also heads Oberlin's Main Street program, part of a national organization designed to help communities keep their downtown districts vital. It's another partnership that community leaders hope will keep local merchants in business. She believes the downtown's existing mix of convenience and specialty stores will help protect the business district against any economic drain from a big retail store.
Kate Reagan- We have some unique shops downtown and that calls to our need to be more unique, to draw to a different market. People who are shopping at Wal-Mart are already shopping at Wal-Mart, they're driving fifteen miles away...We have college students that will continue to use our downtown merchants.
KS- When the new development was proposed, Reagan and other community leaders began meeting with township representatives to see if they could agree on a joint approach. While Oberlin would like to see the property developed for housing, trustee Steve Magyar says the township plans either residential or commercial development in the area. Nonetheless, he says the township is willing to consider a partnership.
Steve Magyar- I think there's mixed emotions on it. I mean, we like the convenience of shopping - not necessarily in our backyard or our neighbor's backyard.
KS- Traditionally, cities faced with sprawl have turned to annexation to take control of new developments. But annexation battles can be costly and the ill will they generate can hamper future cooperation. Ned Hill, professor of urban affairs at Cleveland State University, says there's another alternative.
Ned Hill- Hopefully, they'll be able to put together some kind of joint economic development district so that the town will benefit from the taxes and also will have some sort of say about the esthetics of the property.
KS- What Oberlin leaders are hoping to do is hammer out a revenue-sharing agreement with their township neighbors so that both communities can benefit from any new development. While it's too soon to tell if this particular project will be built, most people agree it's just a matter of time before downtown Oberlin faces competition from a big box retailer. And Oberlin leaders are counting on their new partnerships with college and township neighbors to help keep Main Street alive. In Oberlin, I'm Karen Schaefer for 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.