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Downtown’s decline has many causes

In response to Randy West’s editorial about downtown Corydon becoming a ghost town, I would like to remind Randy that the process has been in motion for many years. The creation of the Main Street Corydon program in the early 1980s was one attempt at addressing the issue, but it hasn’t solved the problem, has it? That’s because there are many, many causes for the problem of declining downtown business.
For starters, let’s look at a big cause: preception vs. reality. Randy brought this one to mind with his mention of A.O. Smith. While A.O. Smith may be Randy’s perception, the reality is that the place he’s referring to has been Tower Automotive since 1997. No wonder Randy’s not concerned about the layoffs at Tower; he’s still looking for news about A.O. Smith! And Randy’s not alone; a lot of Corydon’s movers and shakers don’t keep up with their own community and its trends until it’s too late.
Next is the businesses themselves. Why are businesses closing? To remain in operation, a business has to turn a profit. Simple enough to say, but a lot harder to do. Part of the picture in making and keeping a business profitable is to offer products and/or services that consumers want, at a price consumers are willing to pay. With the wholesale buying power of the Wal-Marts and other big-box retailers, simply being able to sell a product profitably at a price consumers are willing to pay is a huge challenge. It’s hard for a single location to compete with Wal-Mart’s purchasing power; it’s even harder when your small business has to pay WHOLESALE, a price just pennies less than what Wal-Mart can RETAIL the item.
And there’s hours of operation. Many of us now in our 50s and older have longed for, and worked for, the time when we could work a job where the hours of operation allow us to get off work in time to attend community functions such as meetings of civic organizations, school sporting events, and entertainment like the band concerts on the square. But that conflicts with the need of businesses to be open during the hours that people are downtown. Too many business owners and operators put the ‘me’ quotient in front of the need to be open when tourists and local residents are attracted to downtown functions.
Paul Timberlake, former operator of Jock’s Lunch in downtown Corydon, and I discussed this issue many times at his restaurant. It’s hard to become a tourist destination, Paul contended, when most of the tourist-oriented businesses ‘rolled up the sidewalks’ at 5 p.m. While visitors to the Kintner House strolled the streets of Corydon looking for something to do within walking distance, most never found it because it simply wasn’t there at the hours that the tourists were. Compare downtown Corydon with Nashville, Ind., a popular tourist destination; many businesses there don’t open before 10 a.m. ‘ some even later ‘ but they stay open later TO SERVE THE CUSTOMER BASE.
Problem is, as Paul pointed out, it’s hard to be the first, or ONLY, business keeping later hours. Your overhead increases, sure, but with no guarantee that other businesses will follow your lead it’s hard to make a profit as a lone wolf.
And then there’s the question of overhead. Rents in Corydon are outrageous. Period. Landlords, I realize you’re in this for a profit, too; but we’re not Louisville, or even New Albany. Yet rents for residences are as high as or higher than comparable locations that have businesses and such within walking distance. Think rents aren’t a tough nut to crack for a business in downtown Corydon? Just look at the revolving door of business names and operators and styles who have been in JUST ONE location the past 10 years … say, the old Donahue’s Cafe at Capitol Avenue and Walnut Street. These successive businesses haven’t failed for a lack of customers; they’ve died because the customer flow just wasn’t sufficient to overcome the overhead costs. These business people aren’t masochists; I salute every one of them who has tried to become profitable, and I’ve patronized most of them at least once. But until and unless we can get a regular flow of customers into downtown Corydon for EVERY business in the evenings, that ol’ rent/lease expense is ALWAYS going to be a tough nut to crack for a business owner.
On the flip side, I realize that just because we’re not metropolitan doesn’t mean that landlords pay any less for THEIR expenses. But it makes me wonder when I see landlords for many of these businesses living in luxury homes and driving huge SUVs that look like assault vehicles, while the business owner who IS putting in well over 80 hours a week is wondering how he’s going to pay the electric bill. Everyone should have the right to seek out a profit, but there should also be some sort of balance here.
Changing times affect businesses, too. The former owner of a local auto parts store once told me that, in the 1950s and ’60s, he paid his help out of his spark plug and air filter sales; nowadays ‘ and this was over 10 years ago ‘ his machine shop was about all that was keeping him afloat. His son, the current owner, told me a couple of years ago that he and his dad never had a retirement plan; the business itself was going to be their retirement. When faced with retirement, they’d simply sell the business and retire from the proceeds. Now, the owner says, nobody wants to buy a small independent parts store when there are so many giant corporate competitors out there, He’s without a retirement plan, and he can’t quit the business because nobody wants it.
So what’s the solution? I don’t have the answers, certainly; but I’m perceptive enough to understand the problems and the concerns, both of the consumers and the small business persons. I didn’t have to pay a consultant for a study that will most likely be ignored on its most important points. My father and grandfather ran a business in downtown Corydon from 1941 to 1961, and from 1961 to 1991 just south of downtown, so I’m sensitive to a lot of the issues that face businesses in and around Corydon. Change is hard, but unless downtown businesses change when and how they do business, the corporate giants will make the changes FOR them. ‘Going out of business’ will be the new ‘sign’ of the times in downtown Corydon, both now AND in the forseeable future.
Mark D. Knight, 50, New Salisbury, has worked for Tower Automotive for four years.