A small matter of investment

  • Saturday, May 19, 2007 3:00pm
  • Opinion

Whose downtown is it, anyway?

While we all take a proprietary interest in “our” Winslow Way, some interests are more equal than others. That’s why we’ve concluded our recent series on the Winslow Tomorrow planning initiative with a few of the voices whose investment in downtown goes beyond that of the casual shopper.

As three of Winslow’s key property owners, Tom Haggar, Ken Schuricht and Larry Nakata are well positioned to comment on what works and what doesn’t in our downtown core. While the recent debate over Winslow’s future has centered on building height – which, again, can increase substantially even under current and long-standing zoning – the comments in today’s edition remind us that what’s at stake goes well beyond aesthetics. Resolving parking challenges may well determine whether Town & Country remains the anchor of downtown, or instead relocates to property the company owns on High School Road. If that landmark business picks up and moves, our downtown core will change, and not for the better.

At issue, it seems, are competing notions of whether our idealized downtown is a static or dynamic sphere. Elsewhere on this page, real estate consultant Rod Stevens chides this newspaper for our recent suggestion that taller buildings might not be the harbinger of doom feared by Winlsow Tomorrow’s critics. While Mr. Stevens’ comments are well taken, we might consider the last three commercial developments to go up downtown – all mixed-use, multi-story affairs – and their merchant tenants.

One can’t help but be struck by the fact that these businesses are overwhelmingly (if not in fact exclusively) Bainbridge-owned. Storefronts in the Winslow building (Ericksen/Winslow Way), the Seabreeze (Madison/Bjune) and Harbor Square (Winslow Way East) purvey everything from home furnishings to compact discs to fine jewelry to organic food to wine to fudge. Not one is a big-money national chain; all are independent start-ups. In fact, the only franchise outlet you can find along Winslow Way is a sandwich shop in Winslow Mall (which, as it happens, went up in 1976).

Why? Two years ago, in a report commissioned for Winslow Tomorrow, Mr. Stevens’ own firm, Leland Consulting Group, concluded that “the small retail segment of the retail industry [downtown] seems to have a never-ending supply of people who are willing to take a chance and try it.” (That same report went on to suggest that “national retailers appropriately introduced into the community…could actually help to strengthen sales for adjacent local merchants.” But we won’t bring that up.) What this suggests to us is that the Bainbridge community is bullish enough on its downtown, and possessed of enough savvy and capital, that it’s eager to invest in its own slow reinvention. Cheers to that, and a piece of fudge.

To be sure, the “Winslow Way experience” – however you happen to define it – offers a certain gestalt that folks find relaxed and appealing. Perhaps there is ultimately a way to balance low streetfront heights with the higher densities called for in the Comprehensive Plan. At the same time, recent history suggests that new buildings are attracting precisely the kinds of businesses that we already know and love. It’s the fascinating work of economic interests – the business and property owners’ – that are even more direct than, say, yours.

It’s all our Winslow Way, but only to a point.

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