Saturday, January 20, 2007

How do we ensure retail survival?

The editorial on retail survival (Lawrence Journal World, January 7, 2007) correctly identifies the problem but misidentifies the solution. Lawrence, and especially downtown Lawrence, confronts a problem with a surplus of retail space. As you say, “demand has slowed”. Population growth has slowed as has income growth. This leads to lower growth in retail spending, the engine that drives demand for retail space. Unfortunately, growth in the supply of retail space has continued at an unsustainable pace, leaving the city pock marked with vacant and, in some cases, blighted shopping centers.

You suggest that, as downtown competes with this surplus of retail space elsewhere in the city, that it “meet that competition head-on”. Experience in many other markets tells us that this is a prescription for failure. If more space is built than can be supported, competition will pick some winners and leave some losers to deteriorate. The community will be left with the blighting influence of the failed space. Topeka is a nearby example; both its downtown and its White Lakes Mall sit largely empty and blighted because of overbuilding elsewhere.

Lawrence can overbuild and let competition pick the winners leaving the city to suffer with the deteriorated losers. Alternatively, Lawrence can be smart and limit the growth in retail space, keeping it in line with the pace of growth in retail demand. Stores will be occupied, and downtown can thrive rather than just survive.

The market left to itself is not smart enough to pace its own growth; it is prone to overbuilding. Planning for balanced growth is an essential function of local government if the city is to protect the retail centers it already has and is to prevent the blighting influence of surplus growth.

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