In small cities and villages across America, leaders struggle to maintain their turn-of-the-last-century downtowns. Once beautiful, brick buildings sit empty or house ubiquitous flea market shops of questionable quality. Whether limited to a few vacancies spread along the streetscape or entire blocks, we’re witnessing the creation of modern day ghost towns.
There are many contributing reasons why core downtowns are down in the dumps. The 1950’s interstate highway system bypassed downtowns, and businesses have since fled their old digs for the higher traffic count of the interchanges. The rise of super-retailers like Wal-Mart and national franchises proved lethally competitive for locally owned stores and restaurants.
Demographic changes caused by global competition and industry consolidation have been a factor, too. Very few “company towns” exist today in rural America. Gone with those industries are the business owners and upper and middle management who could always be counted on to volunteer for community events, boards, and service clubs. Even community banks have gone by the wayside in many towns, replaced by a sparsely staffed branch of a major regional bank. That’s a lot of pocketbooks no longer supporting local commerce.
All of these factors have combined to stack the deck against traditional Main Street. I’m convinced the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in America, and downtowns can reinvent themselves with elbow grease and creativity. But, one thing stands between rejuvenation and ghost town status-government regulation.
Building and health codes have changed dramatically over the years, making it extremely expensive to operate a business out of an older building. The unintended consequences are that it is far less expensive to build something new in a green space than to use an old building. This creates a barrier-to-entry for simple business start-ups, creating a de facto preference for large, corporate entities with the wherewithal to do as they choose. Local would-be entrepreneurs, perhaps under-employed in this recession, are effectively shut out because of onerous up front capital requirements.
In my hometown, a shuttered restaurant has stood empty for nearly a decade. Over the years, a handful of people with a business dream and little else have expressed interest in starting a new restaurant there. Unfortunately, what was acceptable a decade ago no longer meets updated health and building codes. What could be a turn-key business opportunity now requires an up-front investment of several hundred thousand dollars. How many people in your town have both the interest and the cash to do that?
Nowhere has the law of unintended consequences reared its ugly head more than in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, it helps insure that disabled people have equal access to places the rest of us take for granted. It is a worthy goal everyone should support.
Unfortunately, the law renders older buildings obsolete. Compliance with ADA often requires landlords or owners to invest substantial sums to widen doorways and install handicapped accessible bathrooms, among other improvements. The deal breaker, though, is the requirement under many circumstances to install an elevator in buildings with more than one floor. An elevator, alone, can add half a million bucks to the cost of repurposing a building. Consequently, space that could be income generating loft apartments or cool professional offices is left to the elements and pigeons. Without full utilization of a building, the economics seldom work.
In the effort to balance public safety and access, there must be room for common sense and practicality. One easy fix is for Congress to provide a method to certify eligible downtowns, and exempt those areas from the one-size fits all regulations. Local stakeholders should decide what risks are acceptable in their own communities, and how they’ll insure disabled neighbors are not shut out from commerce and daily life.
Without action, our historic old downtowns will haunt communities as they transition from ghost town to rubble.
Rob Sisson is president of ConservAmerica, a national grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the GOP’s great conservation tradition. Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.