The Future of the Small Box store in Small Town America

How can Big and Small box stores, with cookie cutter design elements, fit into the historic character of a town like Grand Marais?

Small towns across the country are looking to grow at the same time as they are attempting to preserve their unique character. How can thoughtful planning strike a balance between these two basic principles: protect and prosper?

The history, buildings, and natural environment of many towns are essential assets that must be stewarded and protected for future generations. At the same time, many small towns recognize a need to attract new business investment, trade and tourism. Indeed, these two seemingly competing desires for prosperity and preservation sometimes foster a fraught dynamic. One of the most high-profile examples of this dynamic is the newly trending "Small Box" store. Unlike Big box stores, which generally have square footage of over 50,000, Small Box stores are usually 5,000+ square feet. They are owned by large corporations that are often headquartered in distant states. 

There are a variety of concerns that some residents have regarding the introduction of both big and small box stores into any local community. Some major concerns include: low wages, extracting community wealth from the region, poor-quality building design, and a loss of local character. In some older towns, these concerns are especially prescient because of the city's unique built character.

So, is it a lost cause? Prosperous and ugly or quaint and empty? No, there is another way for small towns across America to plan for a future that is visually elegant and still puts money in residents' pockets.  

Below are a few innovative tactics that can help small towns have it all. These tactics require bold action by leadership, and have shown impressive results in various places around the country.

Implementing strict design standards on retail buildings.

Requiring certain design standards on all commercial buildings ensures that the building articulation and overall aesthetic is in character with the rest of the neighborhood. This is particularly important in small towns with unique built environments. The state of Vermont has been particularly successful with regulating design standards and location for big box stores. Requiring stores like Dollar General to locate in a city's downtown center, with brick articulation and streetside entrances have helped these stores better fit into the character of the area. More information can be found here.

Developing a community benefits agreement.

Developing a legal agreement between the community and the business can help defray community concerns and ensure that the new business is accountable to the local people. High profile examples of community benefits agreements include the Seward Co-op Friendship store in Minneapolis, and the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment (Staples) Center. Both of these organizations struck deals with the community on hiring practices, community investment, pay, diversity targets, and other issues important to the community. 

As more small towns integrate into the 21st Century economy, they will have to identify the assets they want to preserve while also looking for sustainable growth opportunities that benefit all residents.