Bet you've pondered this one before: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Regardless which you choose, how did the species manage to continue?
As a city, we have a puzzler that's similar, if not quite so profound. Which comes first - a vibrant, growing downtown/business sector or shoppers with spending money?
We say we want downtown to be full of fun and affordable shops and restaurants. We'd love to see every building occupied. We envision a "Eureka Springs" vibe with neat little stores and tourists browsing along the sidewalks. We like the idea of local flavor, whether talking about merchandise selection or eateries. Even though the vision is exciting, without shoppers with money, it can't develop. Opening a shop requires more than a vision and good advertising. Rent, utilities and labor costs must be met. In order to pay the bills, an owner has to spread these expenses over the number of transactions anticipated. Fewer shoppers equals higher prices, high prices equal fewer shoppers. What a circle!
If only it were possible to wave a magic wand and drop a full set of stores and restaurants into downtown simultaneously. The more retail and restaurants we have, the more successful they will be. The more successful they are, the more enterprising individuals are willing to invest their swear, labor, and money into creating new ventures.
This is the real reason cities consider incentives when they're talking economic development. Having a store or a restaurant be successful doesn't just benefit the owner of that enterprise. Successful businesses lead to more businesses. More successful businesses lead to more paying jobs. More paying jobs lead to more people with money to spend. And you guessed it: More people with money to spend leads to more businesses.
The trick then becomes, how much of an incentive will give a fledgling business a leg up toward being successful without creating an artificial dependence? How and what kinds of incentives are fair and provide a level playing field for everyone who wants to start a business? Are there certain kinds of businesses that we as a city really want to encourage more than others? And just where in the world does the money for these "incentives" come from?
Luckily, the city of Tahlequah doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. We have to find our own flavor of what has worked in other places. There are some really sharp folks working with the Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Authority. There are others who volunteer to work on ad hoc committees and discussion groups. There is work taking place with great discussion and ideas. Ultimately, ideas and discussion will become action - or it will die, and so will the dreams of that vibrant downtown.
Kudos to the men and women who are willing to create the businesses we have! Your vision and perseverance are much appreciated. Likewise, kudos to the individuals who shop Tahlequah first! Every time you choose to buy locally, you build the city we want to become.
Sue Catron, former assistant vice president of Business and Finance at Northeastern State University, is mayor of Tahlequah.