January 26, 2008
The Balance between Chains and Local Shops

In light of the previous post, I wanted to share with you an article I wrote back in the summer of 2005 for The Ohio County Times-News, for the column I write there entitled "From Beaver Dam to Boston." This deals with franchise chains and locally owned shops:

Over the past couple of weeks, Amanda and I were hosts to one of our English professors from Western Kentucky University, Dale Rigby, who was participating in a nearby writing workshop in Vermont. While Dale was here, we discussed Kentucky a lot. Dale has lived all over the country in his life: Ohio, California, Iowa and Missouri, before coming to Bowling Green.

He really enjoyed Boston and Cambridge, the chance to go to English pubs and play chess with strangers. That got us talking about the differences between the business culture and the culture of Bowling Green. Here in Boston, there are local businesses and restaurants on almost every block, each establishment with its own stories and its own history, and I think that should serve as a point of inspiration to the Bowling Greens and even the Beaver Dams I came from.

In cities the size of Bowling Green, though, there is just something increasingly generic about the city as it grows. I have worked with Bowling Green's Chamber of Commerce on various articles and know that there are many unique things about the local Bowling Green economy. But, for every Mariah's in Bowling Green, there's 10 Red Lobsters, good food but without any sense of local culture.

When I think of Kentucky, I don't think of the corporate giants who are taking the mid-sized cities over. Instead, I think of the smaller towns, the places where culture still has some of its unique flavor left. Places like Ohio County.

Of course, there are plenty of powers that are ready to make the small towns generic too. Ohio County's restaurant row is a narrow strip of chain fast food joints, and only a few places of true local flavor still exist--places like Margaret Belford's Beaver Dam Cafe. That's not to cut down the Dairy Queens and the McDonalds and the Subways of Ohio County. After all, the owners of these establishments are valued members of the community. But it's just what many consumers want, the chance for every small town to be the same, the chance to taste the familiar when you're on a road trip, to know what you're going to get for your money and what to expect.

Sometimes, that's what I want, too.

However, Ohio County's not just like every other small town, and I think there are plenty of business owners who deserve the praise for that. Neil Renfrow, developing that strip mall of small-town businesses like his own and 'Lil Stevie's Pizza in Beaver Dam, has taken another step in the right direction. They are trying to do what they can to revitalize what was once the most popular shopping center in Ohio County. And the City of Beaver Dam is working with local merchants to revitalize the historic downtown area.

Even the owners of some of the big chain franchises are doing their part to make Ohio County unique. The Tanners, who own McDonald's, set the example for leadership in the business community in many cases, and I have personally sat with them on various committees and know how much they care. More than that, their version of McDonald's does have a unique flavor to it in that they celebrate their employees and often support and sponsor local initiatives in the community. But not every franchise owner is like the Tanners, and every corporate giant that comes into a small town puts other places out of business.

I'm not preaching against the chains because I stop by Ohio County's Wal-Mart every time I come to town. After all, if I can't find someone at home, that's my best shot at reaching them. And they often offer greater varieties, lower prices and, again, consistency and familiarity from city to city.

All I am saying is that the consumers decide which stores to support, and it is not impossible to have these convenient giants while simultaneously retaining and supporting local businesses.

Here in Boston, we have CVS and Walgreens every few blocks, and Bank of America is located on every street corner. And I have never seen a group of people hooked on a restaurant more than the people of Boston are on Dunkin' Donuts.

But, for every one of those chains, there are just as many locally owned joints, family-owned or regionally owned stores and restaurants that have made their name and have held their value with consumers.

I don't think the people of Boston have anything over the people of Ohio County, and I think that is one of the reasons why I love the place I am from so much.

From Westerfield Implements to Danks Funeral Home, from Johnson's Signs and Trophies to the Fordsville Diner, from Doolin's Grocery to Spinks Pharmacy, and the countless stores in between, Ohio County and its retail business culture is like no other in the world. And that's something to be celebrated.