News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 10, 2013

BUSINESS CENTS: How to end the Downtown Blues

Heather Penney
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — As I look around the Wabash Valley, I have come to understand the significance of our communities’ downtown businesses and sector. Beginning in the mid-20th century, many small businesses downtown found themselves competing with retail giants and malls. As the competition increased, market share dwindled and eventually our beloved local shopping outlets had to close their doors. That brings us to 2013.

What can we do to help the survival of our communities both in Vigo County and our neighboring counties as well? The answer although detailed and complex when broken down is actually very simple. We need to develop strategies to revitalize our downtown business corridors.

Let’s be honest and realistic. The malls and Walmart of America are not going anywhere and they will continue to attract and retain a solid and loyal customer base. In order to revitalize our downtown districts, we need to look at alternative methods and strategies. Listed here are a few points to get the ball rolling, so to speak:

1. In the past several years, Terre Haute has been establishing increased retail and service businesses in the downtown area. Each community is different. What Clinton needs to revitalize downtown is very different than the needs of Rockville or Greencastle. Downtowns experience high vacancy rates and poor mix of retailers. The first thing to do is to understand the market of the prospective community. When researching the local downtown, the focus will be on its assets, the history of the community and any unique quirkiness it may have. For example, many people may not know that Al Capone actually used to visit Clinton when he made trips from Chicago.

2. Based on the market research obtained, then you begin identifying types of businesses best suited for that community. Typically gift shops, art shops, restaurants, maybe furniture or a food and beverage setting like an old soda fountain shop.

3. Tourism is a large factor for the Wabash Valley during the Covered Bridge Festival. This is an opportunity to capitalize on the amount of traffic. In addition, consider other events or festivals that your community can partner with to increase awareness and patronage of downtown businesses. Marketing during events will increase the likelihood of success both for downtown and for the businesses.

4. “Buy Local” initiatives are extremely important. Work with local resources partners, such as the chamber, SBDC, SCORE, lenders, to develop and implement the campaign.

There is a significant push for downtown development and revitalization across the country. Often, challenges exist in many more rural communities but with proper planning, awareness of available resources and a supporting team downtown communities can become prosperous again.

Heather (Penney) Strohm is the regional director for Indiana State University’s Indiana Small Business Development Center.