Douglas City & Business Leaders Concerned Over Deteriorating Economic Viability Of Downtown
It doesn’t take someone with an economic or marketing background to see that the City of Douglas is now facing some degree of economic deterioration, with several empty storefronts, vacant lots and an inability to date to create its own “identity” that on its own can draw any significant number of visitors (i.e. customers) to its local shops and restaurants.
Over the years the blame for this problem - right or wrong - has been laid at many doorsteps: too many large egos in play each vying for some behind-the-scenes’ self-aggrandizement or presumed power; too many absent landlords; too many “hobby” store/gallery owners who close their doors whenever they choose; too many people who can’t stand the thought of someone else having a better idea than theirs; too many residents and business owners trying too hard to prove they are not part of - or reliant upon - Saugatuck’s economy; and the list goes on.
The salient, burning question that now confronts city business owners, residents and government leaders is what to do about the “tenuous” economic health of the Douglas downtown district?
Douglas city officials discussed the topic Monday night, prompted by local entrepreneur John Thomas’ letter to members of the Douglas Downtown District Authority (DDA) and business community.
Thomas is owner of the Thomas Green Shop and has 16 years under his belt doing business on downtown’s Center Street and 21 years of combined retail experience in the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas.
Douglas City Council Member Bill Japinga brought up Thomas’ letter on Monday, specifically citing the author’s opinion regarding:
“The single biggest factor in the economic decline in Douglas is the trend to shorter business hours in response to economic pressures. However, this strategy has backfired. Each time a business is closed when customers would normally expect them to be open, the customers is disappointed.”
Douglas City Council Member Neal Seabert wrote a similar letter of concern, directed to members of the city’s Downtown Development Authority.
The council conceded the need for an economic revitalization program, the need for more downtown businesses and retention of new businesses, but also discussed the varied obstacles confronting such an endeavor.
Some ideas were contemplated, including perhaps the hiring of someone to do the work in the coming year that was being carried out by the city’s former economic development director, Ryan Kilpatrick.
Also, as suggested by Thomas, there is a need for a method to collect data to assess what is happening on the street that can provide economic influence and direction.
“This (economic vitality) discussion has been going on for a long time at least since I’ve been here, which has been several years,” said Douglas City Council Member Greg Harvath.
“From a business point of view, I know it’s not the city’s responsibility, but I would think the city would have some interest in having the downtown viable.”
Harvath, for example, advocates for more city leadership and influence on the issue of vacant lots.
Other various obstacles were also highlighted and discussed.
“The people that own the buildings (that merchants rent to conduct business) are not interested in what is going on here,” noted Douglas Mayor Pro Tem Martha Hoexter, a former Douglas business owner herself.
“What can we do? It’s supply and demand,” said Douglas Council Member Gerald Schmidt in response to Hoexter.
The council members said they were determined to continue discussing the issue and become more involved with the DDA to come up with ideas.
“Part of the problem is that the middle class still doesn’t have (since the economic crash of 2008) a lot of buying power,” said Hoexter. Douglas Mayor Jim Wiley said: “We need more businesses, but we also need more affordable housing.”
In his letter, Thomas notes, in part:
“While thinking about this paper, I made a list of over 40 businesses which have come and gone during our 16 years on Center Street. “This does not include businesses which are rumored to be closing by the end of this year. I make this point because I believe the economic health of the district is more tenuous than people realize.”
Left unaddressed was how the deteriorating viability of “downtown” Douglas on Center Street is negatively impacting other businesses in the city, primarily along the Blue Star Highway corridor.
Saugatuck-Douglas Area Business Association President Jim Petzing said there is a definite need for continued discussion to address these and other economic, political (within both government and the business community) and individuals’ issues and points of view if any significant, substantive, positive change is to be brought about in Douglas.
“I’d be happy to be a part of any effort to improve this situation,” offered Petzing.