Downtown Storefronts Tell a Story

The storefronts in any city tell a story of success, failure and transition.

The storefronts of downtown Owen Sound tell a great deal about the financial health of the local community. Take the east side block of 2nd Avenue East between 10th and 9th street. Within this entire stretch of main street the only retail business with a lengthy history is D.C. Taylor Jewelers – over 100 years. The banks, CIBC and Toronto-Dominion, still anchor the corners.

Interspersed between operating businesses are numerous empty storefrontsInterspersed between operating businesses are numerous empty storefronts, some of which had short-lived tenants and others long-standing businesses. Optimism is expressed by the storefront improvements and expansion of some downtown businesses but the long-empty windows of others are indicators of a declining vibrancy in what is the historic centre of city.

Think of some of the businesses that used to line this stretch of main street: Ireland’s Stationery & Bookstore, Gorbet Furs, Robert’s Radio and Electric, Grafton’s Men’s Wear, Walker’s later to become Marks and Spencer. They are representative of an era when the majority of retailers were privately-owned local enterprises – a time when you preferred to patronize stores in which you knew the owner. Large department stores, strip malls and shopping centres have undoubtedly impacted significantly smaller home-grown businesses that were unable to compete on the basis of price and selection.

What’s been lost is hard to calculate.

Interspersed between operating businesses are numerous empty storefronts Small locally-owned businesses survive on the ingenuity and hard work of their owners. They represent the entrepreneurship of individuals and act as an example to other would-be business owners of what can be attained if you take some risks and work hard. It’s hard to relate the same way to large big-box franchise stores that are the result of a corporate plan and the product of hundreds if not thousands of people. Who do the next generation of potential shop-owners and small business people emulate?

Who do the next generation of potential shop-owners and small business people emulate?The pool of local business entrepreneurs is not depleted as evidenced by a small but steady succession of new start-ups. Unfortunately the lifespan of these new enterprises is usually much shortly than their predecessors that measured their time in business by decades and not years and sometimes months.

The problem is not limited to Owen Sound as many cities, most of which are larger, have seen a dying at the core of their urban landscape as the next generation of retail outlets moved to the peripheries where size and parking needs were better accommodated.

The new generation of shoppers know little of the pleasures of dealing with small businesses where people knew you when came in the door, where service was personalized and the people knowledgeable. You get used to getting lost searching endless aisles and wasting considerable time in search of someone to help you.

Will it change? Probably not until there is a change of attitude occurs in the mind of shoppers who decide that the lowest price, the largest choice or the convenience of “buying it all in one place” are the only things that count. It can only be hoped that the concept of buying local as it has taken hold with many people when buying food extends to a variety of other businesses.

Before you plan to drive out of town to shop at the even bigger big-box stores of southern cities, you may want to check out what is offered locally before you do. Given a chance, most local business-owners will attempt to accommodate most customer needs and may even offer better alternatives. Large retail outlets tend to offer items that can be sold in large volume, not the small quantities that small business-owners would be happy to sell.

Regenerating the commercial core of the city is not simply the job of a merchant’s association,

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