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Creating better downtowns

The truck, with its Montana license plate, was in the huge parking lot in front of a dreary, warehouse-like box store. On its bumper was a faded sticker: Don't Californicate Montana. The truck owner was, no doubt, inside the superstore spending his money ensuring that Montana would soon look exactly like many of the other "nowheres" in America.

Throughout the Rocky Mountains our unique downtowns are threatened with extinction because of box stores. The brutal fist of buy-for-less is squeezing both profit and vibrancy out of our city centers. Not long ago a fellow I know closed the door for the last time on his tire shop and told me, "Those big stores are selling tires retail for less than I can buy them wholesale." With the closing of that little shop, the neighborhood lost a halfway house and a conversation center; a place where, if you were patient enough to wait just a few minutes, you would receive personal attention and genuine help from the owner, a real character who knew his business and his customers' tire needs. It's true that very few people noticed his departure; they were probably busy buying for less at one of the box stores.

I have an admitted bias toward downtowns. Growing up in Butte, Montana, with parents who owned restaurants, I came of age nurtured by the friendliness of the city's center. To me the throb and pulse of Butte's energy flowed down Park Street. It was where everyone came to shop, eat, drink, stand and talk. Downtown, I learned, is where a city tells its stories.

Throughout the West, perhaps everywhere in the country, the appetite for box stores and their reduced prices seems insatiable and the demise of downtown small businesses inevitable. It's as though we consumers are our own worst enemies. However, we should remember our history, which informs us that a determined public, represented by wise and courageous officials, can accomplish great things. Our downtowns and their truly entrepreneurial small business people can flourish and prosper, but it will take public commitment and farsightedness.

Here in the West, from our largest city, Los Angeles, to the mid-sized Denver and Portland and the smaller Missoula and Spokane, civic innovation, reinvestment, zoning, savvy consumers and a little luck have revitalized these and other downtowns. Journalist and author James Kunstler wrote this about Portland: "Could this be America—a vibrant downtown, the sidewalks full of purposeful-looking citizens, clean, well-cared-for buildings, electric trolleys, shop fronts with nice things on display, water fountains that work, cops on bikes, greenery everywhere?"

Saving our western city centers is not easy. We all understand the desire and perhaps the necessity for consumers to pay less at a box store. What is more difficult to comprehend is why we are also giving away our tax dollars to these giant, wealthy franchises. It has recently been revealed that the nation's most profitable, predatory and wage-depressing retail box stores have received one billion dollars in public subsidy. The government cannot and should not decide where we shop, but it can and should get the big boys off the dole.

And while we are thinking reform, the box store employees might consider demanding good salaries and better work conditions. In short, they should organize a union to give them balanced representation at the bargaining table.

Winston Churchill was reported to have said that Americans could always be trusted to do the right thing "after they had exhausted all the alternatives." The box stores are far from exhausted, but too many of our downtowns are…so let's renew our public determination to do the right thing and make them vibrant once again.

We can all help by spending a few of our own dollars downtown and we should insist that our elected officials throughout the West stop giving away our tax dollars to those who don't need them and concentrate instead on repairing the heart of our cities.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

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Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

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Montana, downtown, Californicate, box stores

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