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Of Burgs, Bistros and Boutiques

November 6, 2018
By Darren Fraser , Emmetsburg News

by Darren Fraser

Economic Development Director Darrick Young began in retail 35 years ago for Woolworth. At the time, he remembers the company not be overly concerned by the emergence of "this upstart company." That company was Walmart and the rest is history.

Young uses Woolworth as a cautionary tale. "For small businesses to survive, particularly in small towns, they must not follow the traditional mom and pop model, "Young says. "They must shift to a modern model."

Article Photos

Darrick Young in his office at The Shores. Young says Emmetsburg is perfectly positioned for economic growth.
--Darren Fraser photo

That modern model is a throwback to the time when shoppers wandered up and down streets and window shopped-in other words, storefronts, displays and boutiques. "Boutiques are the new hot thing," says Young.

Amazon remains the 800-pound gorilla in the room. "You can't have a conversation about retail and not discuss Amazon," says Young. Different these days is the slow death of shopping malls. "There are 980 shopping malls in this country. Next year over 200 will shut down," says Young. E-commerce is taking its toll but Young says people no patronize the mega centers. They now prefer the downtown experience. An experience tailormade for Emmetsburg.

"Right now, we don't have the facilities for outdoor [bistro] seating. And the zoning doesn't permit it," says Young. "But I am confident after the new sidewalks go in next spring, we will change the law." The allure is not just an aesthetic one. Young is a devotee of Roger Brooks and his Destination Development organization. According to Brooks, an active downtown shopping area creates its own buzz. Young agrees. "Passersby see our citizens eating, shopping and milling about and they want to stop and find out what's going on." The converse of this is the ghost town effect. "You ever drive through a town and see nothing happening?" asks Young. "Why would anyone want to stop?"

Egypt has the gift of the Nile; Emmetsburg has the gift of the highways. "Where are people headed during the summer? The lakes. How do they get there? Either coming up [highway] four or across eighteen. What we need to ensure is this traffic stops on the way and spends money in Emmetsburg."

Five years ago, the city took steps to increase the odds of this happening. Nineteen businesses received federal money to improve their facades. Earlier this year, professors from Ball State University paid a visit to see the results. "One of the first things they asked is how many businesses that didn't receive grant money fixed up their facades? I looked at Deb [Hite] and we thought, 'Maybe three.' It was nine," Young says.

He adds he and Hite suffered from familiarity breeds ambivalence. One of the Ball State committee said the courthouse was a beautiful building. "I drive by that courthouse every day and I don't see it. But he is right."

Young sees the seven vacant downtown retail spaces as opportunities. "I'm thinking 2020, after we complete the sidewalks. We will fill those storefronts."

Young has attended two of Brooks' seminars. The last time he saw Brooks was in Iowa City. "They have six or seven blocks devoted to pedestrians. I was there midweek. The bistro seating was full. There was live music. By seven p.m., the mall was packed."

Iowa City is by no means unique. Cities across the country have discovered the benefits of converting busy shopping districts into pedestrian malls.

Young turns the conversation toward destination shopping. "Look at Heavenly Celebration here in Emmetsburg. People from all over go there to buy wedding gowns." This is the core philosophy behind boutique and bistro retail. "A boutique must always stay on top of what's hot. This means not buying something in bulk but being able to shift inventory to meet the latest demands." Young sees a symbiotic relationship between boutiques and bistros. "It's about activity," he says.

Young also mentions brewpubs. "These are the latest thing. I know a guy who initially opened four days a week but now he's open all week." Again, this goes back to ambiance. During nice weather, people want to be outside enjoying a beer. With other establishments offering bistro seating, with boutiques attracting window shoppers-this creates buzz; this creates revenue.

Young mentions Five Island Life and the good work Kelly Bay is doing. "The wine walk. Fun on the five. We hoping to do something for winter. Maybe winter games. And then there's this." Young spreads his arms indicating his office which is in The Shores. "We had 43 weddings here. Four were from Emmetsburg. When I go home [on the night of a wedding], half the license plates in the parking lot are for Kossuth or Emmet counties. That means people staying in our hotels, buying gas, eating in our restaurants, drinking in our bars, etc. It's a win, win, win."

Young knows there will always be people who shop at Walmart. "I'd rather hit myself in the head with a hammer than go to Walmart," he says. The key is to offset the loss of those sales by ramping up tourism and tourist dollars. "We have a lake, most of which is in our city limits. We have a casino. We have Poet and AGP. We have all the traffic going to the lakes. All we have to do is get people to stop and discover what a great place is Emmetsburg."



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