Most small New England cities have downtowns that have seen better days. Gone are the bustling city centers with Main Streets featuring busy shops.
Some keen business observers blame the decline of downtowns on the popularity of shopping malls. According to the Association for Consumer Research, the first mall was built in the mid-1950s, but malls saw a surge in the 1970s. By 1975 there were 16,400 shopping centers in the U.S. accounting for 33 percent of retail sales. In 1987, there were 30,000 malls accounting for more than 50 percent of all retail dollars spent and downtown merchants started to see a decline in foot traffic.
While malls may have triggered the move away from city centers to all inclusive one-stop shopping, others view the impact of super-stores like Walmart as the enemy of small businesses. Add in the growing popularity of online shopping and downtowns have even more competition.
Small cities and towns built on tourist-type businesses like Salem, Massachusetts, Newport, R.I. and Ridgefield, Connecticut, have managed to draw people to their shopping districts by offering quaint boutiques and unique dining. At the same time, cities like New Britain and Bristol have struggled to keep their downtowns alive.
Some communities have turned away from a focus on mom and pop stores and looked to other ways to fill their vacant buildings.
New Britain has concentrated an effort on CTfastrak, events like the Farmers Market, the revamp of Central Park and projects like Columbus Commons to draw people to its downtown.
While Bristol is counting on the construction and opening of Bristol Hospital’s new downtown building to draw people and other medical-related offices to the area.
We believe New Britain and Bristol’s efforts to envision what their downtowns could offer to residents is a step in the right direction. Simply hoping that downtowns will return to their glory days is a waste of time. Rebuilding downtowns with a focus on health care, leisure and entertainment activities, education and mixed-use housing could ensure these cities remain vibrant places for residents, consumers and businesses owners alike.