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Downtown Development

Jul 9th, 2010 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article


An Empty Storefront

An Empty Storefront



We recently received this email from a reader:

Why can’t Elizabethtown get and keep merchants in its downtown area?  Visitors to our town remark about all the empty storefronts.  Further when new businesses do open they seem to leave in less than a year.  Why are there no takers at Sycamore Square?  Why is there no bakery, gift shops, or clothing stores in town?  In order to buy anything you have to go to Harrisburg or Lancaster.  Mt. Joy has shops; Lititz has shops: why not E-town.  Does anyone have the answer on how to attract and keep new retail businesses?

Borough Councilman Jeff McCloud Responds:

The downtown area is something that Borough Council is keenly aware of and something that we have discussed recently. We support the Chamber of Commerce — both financially and as a cheerleader for its efforts, and we are encouraging the current downtown merchants to work together as a community of businesspeople. The entire area from Sycamore Square and the train station to Market Street was rezoned to attract businesses, and the master plan includes the development of walking and biking paths that are intended to bring people directly into the downtown to walk, exercise and hopefully spend some money. As Borough Manager Roni Ryan said recently, people head out to the Conewago Rail Trail and walk two miles out and two miles back — and there’s nothing there! Just think what the potential would be if Elizabethtown developed trails in the town that are a destination for people! In fact, work on the first stage of the path will be starting soon. If the people are there, businesses will respond and open to serve the customers.

To answer the question about Sycamore Square, it had the misfortune of being completed during the worst recession in my lifetime.

Elizabethtown Journal Editor Mike Schwartz Responds:

Maintaining vibrant and viable retail districts in small communities has been an issue that municipal officials have been struggling with for quite some time now.  In my youth (that was some time ago) every community center had a grocer, a five and dime, a pharmacy, a mix of other specialty retailers, and even a movie theater.  These establishments provided everyday goods and services for the local community.

Starting sometime in the 1960’s, market and lifestyle changes began to decrease the viability of these businesses.  These changes are numerous, but a few are worthy of mention.  First, the structure of retail business has changed dramatically since the 1960’s.  For example, it is difficult to locate a five and dime—big box stores have made them obsolete.  Finding a one screen cinema is also difficult; economies of scale and chain ownership have hastened their demise.  Independent pharmacies are becoming an historical artifact; mergers have left us with two drug store chains in the east.  Supermarkets are the consumer choice for groceries and small grocers are few and far between.  As a consequence, most of us are in reasonable proximity to at least one big box store, a multi-establishment shopping center or mall, a pharmacy with a parking lot, and a supermarket with a parking lot.  This scenario attenuates the viability of traditional small downtown retail establishments.

At the same time as these market forces were developing, changes in the American lifestyle were also occurring. Increased flexibility in transportation is one of these changes.  Most families own at least one automobile for every adult in the household, presenting a non-working spouse with many choices for retail shopping.  Malls and shopping centers offer an automobile friendly venue for shopping and also offer a variety of shopping choices.  As many of our daily functions exited from our community of residence, we began to identify less with our residential communities. We began to feel a lesser need to carry-on our daily lives there.  After all, our work, our friends, and our recreational opportunities were becoming more expansive geographically.  Why not the same for our shopping?

These forces are very strong.  Are they the death knell for community downtown retail districts?  Not necessarily.  Certainly, the type of downtown which provided the retail needs of daily life is beyond resuscitation.  However, a more niche-oriented retail district is not.  This is certainly true of Lititz, as our reader suggested.  A niche-oriented retail district exploits what economists call “external economies of agglomeration”.  That’s an academic way of saying that presence of one business is beneficial to the presence of another.  In the case of Lititz, dining and food establishments benefit from being in the presence of other like businesses.  Because of the density and proximity of these establishments, Lititz becomes a destination, not only for locals but for others.  Once the niche is established, other types of businesses become more viable.  Does anyone really go to the beach to shop at outlet stores?  Perhaps.  But for most, I think the beach brings you there and outlet retailers take advantage of the large crowds with free time.  Elizabethtown needs a niche.

Finding a niche and developing it with public support is not a simple matter.  There is not a universal template; if there was then small communities would have adopted it en mass.  In developing a plan like this, one has to consider the existing retail infrastructure; the enabling infrastructure (like parking and access), pulls from other communities, realistic market opportunity, the willingness of private business to participate, the fairness of attracting and favoring certain business, and a variety of other factors.  This type of development has been known as ”programming” in planning circles and is an activity that municipalities engage in with some reluctance.

I claim no special knowledge on what a “good” development plan for Elizabethtown would look like.  However, I can offer a few simple suggestions for the borough:

(1) Convene a committee of development experts and interested citizens to determine: (a) what the public goals should be, (b) assess the viability of different development approaches, and (c) construct a preferred development plan.  This probably can be accomplished at no cost to the borough.  It may be accomplished employing a partnership with a local college or through volunteers.

(2) Relying on infrastructure development and market forces has a very low probability of success.  Pennsylvania is awash with downtowns that have nice sidewalks, planted trees, and some parking….but many boarded windows. In these times an integrated approach that uses a programming method is necessary.

(3) A business is not a business.  The public’s interest in a “community downtown” is not one which is vested in attracting financial planners, architects, and other non-retail businesses.  A public downtown is for people as much as it is for shopping.

(4) The plan cannot be too incremental.  Accomplishing the threshold economy of agglomeration is necessary for the success of any plan. A little bit is not enough.

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  1. Great postings … both the questions and the responses!
    For years, downtown’s have been the incubator hub for new and independent businesses to get established, grow and prosper. Some become successful and need to expand their shop outside of the downtown. Others grow by opening up branches in other communities. And others are very successful in the place where they originally opened their business.
    Those who close their doors have a wide variety of reasons for doing so. It can be financial … not generating enough revenue or being undercapitalized. It can be a health situation, poor management, an opportunity to work elsewhere, not the right product, no foot traffic, etc. The list can go on and on but ultimately the decision is the owner’s.
    We need to celebrate and support Elizabethtown businesses that are in place and have been here for years. They have kept their commitment to you through all of the economic ups and downs. They are the ones who know you by name, provide you with a top quality product, will go the extra mile to give you the excellent service that you deserve and are grateful for your business. These businesses also provide many jobs. They are the ones who sponsor events like the Holiday Parade, Let E-town Ring, Arts in the Park, Summer Lunch Series just to name a few of the community activities that are held in or near the downtown.
    Downtown development is a community responsibility! It is clear that Elizabethtown Borough Council is enthusiastic about the Downtown and supports it on multiple levels. We are fortunate to have West Donegal and Mount Joy Township support as well. But there are additional partners that assist in retaining and sustaining the vitality of the downtown. The local businesses are a part of that and the local customer plays a big role too. There are many clubs and organizations in the Elizabethtown area that have missions that in some way support a healthy and vibrant community.
    So how do we support the local economy and specifically the downtown? Do we keep our money where our house is? It is a very good investment as it strengthens the local economy and that benefits the entire community.
    I would challenge people to start a new trend. Try the 3/50 Project. Pick three shops that you would miss if they closed. Stop in and say Hello! Then pick something up that makes you smile. Your purchase will help keep this business around. Spend $50 a month in a locally owned business. Remember that for every $100 spent in a locally owned business, $68 returns to the community through payroll, taxes and other expenditures. The same money spent at a national chain only leaves $43 in the local economy. And if you shop online, nothing is returned to the local economy.
    In the meantime, the Elizabethtown Area Chamber of Commerce has recently hosted focus groups with local businesses and others to get feedback from them about the downtown environment. More focus groups are being planned with different stakeholders. There is a committee working on the Downtown Master Plan. Another committee is working on identity, communication and special events.
    The renovation of Center Square and the Pedestrian Pathway should begin in the next few months. The Center Square project will open up the square by lowering the pillars. This will provide better visibility for the businesses that are located on the square. The planters will be removed and two of the corners will have permanent furniture installed. The Pedestrian Pathway between the old Hotel and the former 24 South Market Street will be home to additional lights, plantings, banners, etc. This pathway is the beginning of a project to provide alternate walking paths that will eventually get people to the Amtrak Station.
    For further information, you are welcome to stop by the Chamber / Main Street Office at 29 South Market Street or phone 361.7188 for an appointment. Office hours are from 9 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday and other hours are available by appointment.

  2. I certainly do not disagree with anything that Beth wrote: Support for our existing local merchants is an important value to disseminate throughout the community; The development of a more user friendly physical infrastructure can contribute to public use of space and enhance merchant access; and community events are always part of the formula for an active sustainable local downtown. However,I am suggesting that we, as a community, consider more than these traditional formulas in the development and maintenance of a viable downtown retail and community space.

    In my response to the question, I suggested that incorporating a method that favors specific retail types (what I called programming) would be the method that has the highest probability of resulting in an active, vibrant downtown area. One has to remember that the public goal here is a community-oriented downtown and not the success of individual businesses. Although the latter is a prerequisite for the former, a collection of non-integrated businesses does not a downtown make. Given the structure of the retail economy today, we cannot expect our downtown to function as the community downtown of old. Consequently, we need to find an integration mechanism that makes the area a destination–both for community residents and for others. I realize that this not an easy task and is littered by potential problems. Certainly Beth as intimated one important problem, fairness to the existing downtown businesses.

    I am suggesting that two important approaches be taken in addressing this issue. First, we need to define a target, i.e., a goal. This goal has to be a community goal. I favor one that puts people on the street in the area, preferably throughout the day (not just daytime or nighttime). Second (and in response to Beth), we need to move beyond the traditional development strategies and consider new methods to achieve these public goals.

  3. I was really excited to read this dialogue on revving up E-town. I grew up there and after graduating from Penn State, moved almost two decades ago to Maryland for opportunity and income. While you can take the boy out of E-town, E-town can’t be taken out of this boy as I miss the small town charm and remain connected through family and friends. Elizabethtown Borough can never be the way it was for many reasons but does it want to be a basic bedroom locale or a somewhat self-supporting community?

    I agree with Mike that the people (residents, business owners and governmental leaders) must determine the 20-30 year direction by thought and plan and also agree with Beth through action and spending. Both are important. However fixing up train stations, streets and paths do make things look better but I can’t see how they will drive the economic engine that is necessary for success in the modern world. And unlike in a more urban environment, simply establishing an allowable zoning for a certain type of business will not encourage business to start or thrive. On the contrary, I submit that it was poor zoning (allowing sprawl into strip malls outside of town) that actually encouraged the demise of downtown (surely not unique to E-town). And one can’t forget about adequate parking which I also feel is a real barrier to serious business growth. Sycamore Square isn’t connected to town in any real way either so it’s no surprise to me that it struggles regardless of a down or up general economy.

    I also believe it is time to be more comprehensive in an economic, physical and regulatory plan that embraces the strengths of E-town (spirit, location, college, cost of living, parks, etc.) and attracts people to live, play, work, invest and promote it for the next 100 years. But any plan must have a healthy dose of vision and reality in that a given population only has so many needs and a limited spending power.

    With that said, debate and introspection are important parts of any solution – I intend to become more engaged in the quest to re-engergize the special place in the hopes that one day it might have enough prosperity to bring me home.

  4. Jeff McCloud made additional comments on his blog, Chronicling Elizabethtown ( They are reproduced here:

    Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    Stop talking about Elizabethtown’s potential — let’s realize it

    Mike Schwartz, editor of the online Elizabethtown Journal, recently forwarded an e-mail from a resident who had questions about businesses in downtown Elizabethtown. Mike asked me if I would respond, and he posted the comments on the Journal’s site along with his own thoughts and commentary.

    At about the same time, David Moulton and Daniel Klotz, who host and produce the podcast The Lancast, interviewed Ryan and Dawn Bracken, the proprietors of Folklore Coffee & Co. about opening, running and maintaining a business in downtown Elizabethtown. In listening to the interview, I was impressed with their commitment to Elizabethtown and to the downtown.

    The attention on the borough’s business district is great, and I think that Mike Schwartz makes an excellent point in his comments that Elizabethtown needs to find a niche. Further, for the downtown to succeed, it must exploit that niche. Let me offer comments on his four suggestions:

    (1) Convene a committee of development experts and interested citizens to determine: (a) what the public goals should be, (b) assess the viability of different development approaches, and (c) construct a preferred development plan. This probably can be accomplished at no cost to the borough. It may be accomplished employing a partnership with a local college or through volunteers.

    RESPONSE: The borough has a plan for the entire area from Market Street to the train station and Sycamore Square, and it’s being implemented (see the train station, see the soon-to-be walking paths).

    (2) Relying on infrastructure development and market forces has a very low probability of success. Pennsylvania is awash with downtowns that have nice sidewalks, planted trees, and some parking….but many boarded windows. In these times an integrated approach that uses a programming method is necessary.

    RESPONSE: Absolutely! Placing trash cans, for instance, strategically throughout the downtown will make it look nice as people drive through town, but it won’t make them stop.

    (3) A business is not a business. The public’s interest in a “community downtown” is not one which is vested in attracting financial planners, architects, and other non-retail businesses. A public downtown is for people as much as it is for shopping.

    RESPONSE: This is the reason why the borough is moving forward with the walking paths. As I mentioned in my comments to the e-mail Mike sent to me, the paths could make E-town’s downtown a destination. As Borough Manager Roni Ryan noted, how many people head out to the Conewago Trail to walk two miles out and two miles back — and there’s nothing out there?
    (4) The plan cannot be too incremental. Accomplishing the threshold economy of agglomeration is necessary for the success of any plan. A little bit is not enough.

    RESPONSE: And here’s the rub: The borough government can’t take it on all by itself. It will require business owners working together with the chamber, the borough and each other in a coordinated effort. It will require the borough to use its influence to make things happen within the constraints of budgets and taxes.

    If we all work — really put some time, effort and money in — toward a common goal, we can stop talking about Elizabethtown’s potential and finally realize it.

  5. No mom and pop shops will ever survive in Etown. There is no draw from other areas to travel to Etown to shop/eat. Therefore, they will have to survive on the “locals” and lets face it, there is not much for money in Etown. The only thing in Etown outside people will drive to is Rockwells.

    Survey the population and give the people what they want…a TARGET!

  6. This is great discussion. I would like to add something to it, if I may.

    A top reason for small business failure is lack of capital. An entrepreneur has an idea, puts as much financial resources as possible into it, but it is not enough to get the business up and running and sustain 6-12 months of operating losses. Is there an opportunity to build a venture fund, much like Franklin County has the Franklin Futures Fund, for local people to invest equity capital in local businesses? Access to the capital would be done through a Board of Trustees for the fund, made up of experts in small businesses. Entrepreneurs would have to submit business plans for review. If accepted, the fund would become an equity partner with the business owner.

    This would help on two fronts: 1) Inject discipline during the concept phase of the small business. Make the owner think… what are my costs, what are my products/services, at what price, how much will I have to sell, are there enough customers in E-town or must I draw from outside, how will I attract customers?. In my opinion, this discipline is lacking during small business formation. Look at our downtown and how many similar businesses we have chasing the 11,000 households in our community!… and 2) Enhance the capital position of the business so it can weather the startup period, which typically results in losses.

    It also gives the community a stake in those businesses in which the fund invests. I think if I had a financial stake in an Etown golf shop, I would buy as many supplies there as possible, rather than go to Dick’s (golf shop is an example, not an endorsement for the need for a golf shop).

    I agree with Mike’s assessment about a niche. Most businesses will have to draw revenues from inside and outside Etown. I wonder where the niche train shop gets revenues? Lancaster has “the Arts”, whatever that means. But there is a lot of foot traffic there. Smaller communities, like West Chester, PA and Berlin, MD have excellent downtowns. We should too!


  7. Carrie’s comment, “Survey the population and give the people what they want…a TARGET!” illustrates an important matter related to this discussion. It would be presumptuous for policy makers to assume that the public desires a public investment in developing a retail downtown composed of small businesses. In my initial response to the reader’s question, I suggested that a committee should be convened to determine just what the public interest is and should be. So I do agree with Carrie that we should determine what is in the public interest. However, the public interest with respect to downtown development is comprised of more than just the retail preferences of local residents. It also includes the social and community benefits that a downtown retail center offers. Are these benefits worthy of a public investment? That is for the community to evaluate and decide.

    Jeff Marsico’s comment also seems to be on point. Obviously a necessary condition for a successful downtown are successful business enterprises. Any supporting infrastructure that contributes to business success and engages the community in a material as well as a social manner should contribute to the social as well as the consumer benefits of a revitalized downtown. A local capital fund serves many purposes–a cooperative community thrift would take this idea even further.

  8. thiers is so much potential with downtown u just have to get stuff that no other dow town has,
    take down a building make room for parking, lounge ,bar,something for the kids,something for winter or summer so we’re not couped up in our homes.not just shopping, activities too!

  9. Mike asked me to comment on this subject. There’s one thing I believe and cliche as it may sound…Anything is possible. I like all the comments made and what I’m about to say is my opinion and through my life experiences that make be believe a better E-town is attainable.

    To create a sustainable business is Elizabethtown is 100% possible. However, how much money do you need the business to make is the point where it becomes unsustainable. Most business take 3-5 years of being open to really start generating profit. And in those years, a business needs to reinvent themselves over and over again and to never stop marketing their brand and products but that’s true of anywhere. So why is E-town not thriving. We’ve had a booming town before where did it go and what happened? We are on the butt end of 4 counties. So each county kind sees us as a third wheel, so to speak. That’s an excuse that can be diminished if we give them something to talk about. Elizabethtown lacks structure, continuity, community interaction, and leadership. And I don’t mean the mayor, borough and/or other members of the local government. I mean, business leadership. Currently, I am very impressed with our borough council and the steps they’ve made from 4-5 years back. But what they are doing is only a piece of the pie. They can’t do it all, nor should we expect that. Someone or something needs to grab the bull by the horns and run with it but leave a footprint for others to follow. Someone mentioned a venture fund, that’s a good start and the state has money available for that. However, that’s only one leg of the table. The issue that I can see is that E-town had leadership and either that person died, retired or quit, while leaving no map, plan, or system of information to carry on his/her role, energy and knowledge. As well, those that used to be heavily involved either grew old, got tired of nothing happening or just gave up. That’s no disrespect to them, they put their time in and paid their dues. But we can’t let it happen again.

    The world around us is changing and cycling. Sorry to say, but the days of Targets, Wal-Mart, other superstores and national chains are coming to an end. With gas prices, utility expenses, property taxes etc. all going up, these huge companies are struggling to survive. All they can do is hope to find even cheaper products, keep competitors out through new regulation while raising their prices to us and/or force the towns they are in to reduce the local taxes they pay even more than they are already reduced. Those companies don’t care about our town or any town for that matter. They don’t worry about who they’re hurting, where they are building, what habitats they are disrupting and so on. They have little to no involvement in community activities or concerns about schools, streets, housing, violence, crime etc. Yeah, they bring in jobs and tax revenue but at what cost? The majority of their money leaves the area and never comes back. A local business owner, takes his/her profits and spends them on other local business. He/she will tend to purchase most of their monthly supplies locally. So at first sight it may appear that a superstore brings in more money because of the shear volume they produce. However, a local business owners money is recycled over and over again, in smaller increments than a superstore but with much more quantity and relevance. If I’m not making any sense, think of it like this. If you spend $100 at Target, approx. 40% of that may make it back to the community the other 60% is gone and will almost never be back. If you spend $50 at a local business approx. 60% of that comes back into the community. Now if that business owner takes that $50 and uses it to by supplies for his business from another local business. Than 60% of that makes it back to our community than that business does the same and so on, and so on. It’s really simple math. It’s harder to track therefore to some it doesn’t exist. But it does and it’s proven to create small town and small business success.

    E-town residents have gotten it into their head that no business can make it. It’s simply a false statement, but one does has good reason to believe that considering E-town’s track record. We need 4 major parts to revitalize E-town. If you have free time, ask the Chamber, borough or MSIB if you can see the “Gleason Report”. Start in this order, 1) You need a building block, a foundation and you have to start small. I believe that block to be the downtown corridor. From Willow St. to College Ave. on Market and from the Train Station to the High School on High St. But more importantly, High St. to College Ave on Market St. 28,000 cars travel that small stretch DAILY yes daily. It’s one of the busiest stretches of road in the state that isn’t a major highway. 2) Develop a grant program and/or revolving loan for renovations and new business and start just in that small area. Things will spread out, you’re not alienating anyone but you have to start somewhere. As well produce more incentives to a new business wanted to move into that area. This means that all the internal groups (chambers of commerce, economic development groups, non-profit, Rotary, Legion, etc., boroughs) need to work together. 3) Start to engage the community by having more events, activities etc. in that particular corridor and then 4) Re-brand the town, give the buildings similar but unique appearances, as well treat your town and this area as a product you are trying to sell. Create more parking and make it visible, make it easy to walk around and find things (a map), make directional information uniform, have a storefront in this area specifically dedicated to town information, get the stores to have similar and most likely longer hours of operation. A subtle yet highly important alternate is you have to have food, food, food, food. You need stable, good and destination style restaurants as well as small cafes and quick service food. And yes, some of them have to serve alcohol. Get over it and just accept it. People will come for food and beer then stay to walk it off which translate to shopping.

    There’s obviously much finer details involved in all of those but that’s that outline and simple basis I believe that can make any town revitalized.

    We don’t need national chains or superstores, they will only make more of a ghost town. Small businesses don’t have deep pockets so they have to be smart. With a strong local economic support system, new business can become sustainable. However, talk won’t solve anything, it has to be put into action. As well, doing nothing is far worse than doing something or anything that can be viewed as progress and learning. If you want a better town, you have to shop and support your town. Even if it means spending a little more than you would at a national chain. That extra money will save you less in the long run. It will go to keep you town safer, cleaner, with better roads, snow removal, sanitation with better parks, play grounds and more. I know it’s hard to see that money in effect. It’s much easier to hold two receipts next to each other and say, oh there’s where I can save money. You have to really understand the flow of you money to really know that sometimes more means less. There’s residual savings that you will never even know but it’s there. All because you supported local businesses. Plus if one of those superstores shuts down or moves, our taxes will immediately go up. Where’s you savings now.

    Just pick a nice day, park your car, reserve about 2 hours of your day and walk your town. I think you’ll see more than you ever thought was there. Buy local.

  10. [...] Elizabethtown’s central business district appeared in the Elizabethtown Journal in July of 2010 (  Included in that discussion was an assessment of the current state of affairs, problems [...]

  11. [...] of community economic development to community social community development was discussed.  The first can be found at this hyperlink.  The second at this [...]

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