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Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

In the early 1980’s I served on the economic development board of the Garden City (Ks) Chamber of Commerce. Back then, the efforts of such committees were almost exclusively to try to recruit new businesses, mostly manufacturing, to come to town. Support for small retail businesses came from another committee, probably one called “retail. Or, from another organization. This was before the inception of the greatly successful Kansas Main Street program and there was a group in Garden City called the Garden City Downtown Association (GCDA)Since I had a business in the downtown district, I was a member of GCDA and, in fact, served as president for two or three years. I don’t remember much use of the word “entrepreneur” back then and while there was support for small businesses and start-ups, the support was nothing like it is today. 

Urban Renewal of the 1960’s-Federal Remedy to Shopping Malls 

At the time, Garden City’s downtown was healthy while neighboring downtown Dodge City was nearly dead. The only difference I could ever figure out to explain why one downtown district was so healthy and another so unhealthy is that Garden City didn’t buy into a massive effort in the 1960’s by the federal government called Urban Renewal (UR). 

In the 1960’s, suburban shopping malls were coming of age and began drawing customers away from downtown business districts. I’m sure constituents cried out to their state and federal legislators to do something about the impending death of main street American. So, this massive effort by the federal government called Urban Renewal was born. The central planning revolved around the idea that downtown districts could emulate the mall experience. In order to do that, old buildings had to be torn down, sidewalks widened and covered, and the narrower streets made one-way. I was very young at the time, but on one trip to Dodge City, I saw all the piles of rubble where buildings and streets used to be. I’m sure I asked my mother what was going on and she tried to explain Urban Renewal. As well intentioned as it may have been, the massively expensive Urban Renewal (after all it was federal tax dollars that paid for itfailed to bring shoppers back to downtowns and even today, some areas struggle in the aftermath. 

Many downtown districts across America struggle with what to do about covered sidewalks and narrow one-way streets along with customers who will park 300 feet from the front door at Walmart but complain if they can’t park within two doors of a downtown business.  

Aftermath of Urban Renewal Remains in Some Areas 

Urban Renewal was a form of the federal government making decisions about business instead of letting the marketplace run its course. No doubt, the intention of UR was to save businesses in downtown districts. In the end, most businesses were lost anyway, along with countless historic buildings. Today, the big malls struggle as many people return to small boutiques in downtown areas and the Internet for their shopping. Many of the downtown boutiques, especially those that initiated or grew their Internet business during last year’s pandemic are doing quite well today. 

It was the marketplace that caused the conditions for which the federal government decided to intervene with Urban Renewal. The conditions of the pandemic are a little different. Not only did the pandemic itself hurt many businesses but for a while, government agencies were deciding what businesses were and were not essential. (Some states this continues.) Once again, the government is intervening with massive help. Let’s just hope that in the end analysis, the Feds get the right amount of help to the right businesses at the right time. Let’s also hope that they don’t decide to initiate a program of “suburban renewal” for which the federal government tears down the malls in order to rebuild them to look more like the boutiques and small businesses in downtown America. 

Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at jcorrell@indycc.eduThe views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at www.fablabicc.org. 

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