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Monday, August 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist
Striking a balance between chains and local retailers


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BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Cast your eyes up and down the streets of this wonderfully walk-able Maine seaside town where lobstermen rub shoulders with summertime tourists and you see scarcely a sign of a national chain. Starbucks, Banana Republic, Holiday Inn, Barnes & Noble, Victoria's Secret — they're obvious by their absence.

Instead, a stroll through Boothbay Harbor brings you past places such as the Boothbay Fudge Factory, Grover's Trustworthy Hardware, the Mung Bean Gift Shop (featuring Maine crafts), the Tugboat Inn, and Sherman's two floors of everything under the sun from great books to lobster earrings. In Mollie Hutchins' dress shop, I discovered an applique pattern dress that looked right for my 6-year-old granddaughter. But I wasn't sure about the size. "Don't worry," said Mollie, "if it doesn't fit, just mail it back to me and I'll make her another."

Later, checking with Jaimie Kleinstiver, director of Boothbay Harbor's Chamber of Commerce, I discovered I'd missed a Rite Aid and a Subway somewhere in town. But Boothbay has "absolutely no chain hotels or motels," said Kleinstiver, rather proudly.

Part of Boothbay Harbor's freedom from national chains, their big signs and plastic hard sells, is that coastal Maine's economy is so seasonal. And why, pray tell, would a Wal-Mart or other big-box retailer want to locate at the end of a 10-mile peninsula?

But the reasons go deeper. "We're Yankees," said Kleinstiver. "We don't want to be like everyone else. We take pride in our individuality — people, architecture, businesses. Our hospitality reflects that. It's very personal."

The disturbing reality is that more and more American towns and cities — especially those that would like to preserve their local culture and to grow their own local retailers and innkeepers — are facing a tough dilemma.

As people have begun to flow back into cities and towns, many of the "formula" chain stores and restaurants that populate suburban malls and strip shopping centers have decided to come to town too. From San Francisco to St. Paul, and from Tampa, Fla., to Coronado, Calif., cities and towns fearful of losing their uniqueness are trying to limit numbers of chain restaurants and retailers or setting strict size and design requirements to keep them at bay.

But exclusion is a dicey game, as many towns learned back in the 1920s and '30s when they tried to keep out Woolworths, Sears and other chain retailers. Legally, a store can't be discriminated against just because it's chain-owned.

What's more, there may be a plus to some chain stores in town. Lenders are more comfortable financing them. A mix of nationals and locals may help a city weather an economic downturn.

The dilemma is how to strike a balance — so that on a Saturday morning you can still get in your car and drive to a big box and buy goods cheap and anonymously, if that's your taste. Yet if you prefer, stroll down Main Street, open a shop door, smell fresh muffins like no chain ever produced, chat with the owner/baker and know the dollars you spend are supporting a local entrepreneur, not some cash-hungry, distant chain.

My colleague Peter Katz, author of "The New Urbanism," now a professor of urban affairs at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, Va., has an answer: Let the chains compete for a place on Main Street. But make sure they play by pretty strict town rules: No cheap economy boxes set in the middle of parking lots. No horsy plastic signs overwhelming the streetscape. No big blank walls facing the street.

Towns that want to take command of their own destiny, says Katz, need to spell out their own vision of the Great American Main Street, not through traditional zoning but rather specific form-based codes. That means requiring that storefronts have ample windows, come right up to the sidewalk, and allow offices or residences on their second floors.

If all stores are obliged to follow those rules, argues Katz, some chains will likely come in — indeed, in many cities and towns, even big operators such as Home Depot have shown they can fit tastefully into the historic townscape.

But even with chains' competition, Katz contends, the convivial atmosphere of a well-planned Main Street, the personal relationships that local merchants can establish, will keep them strongly in the game. By that optimistic scenario, people will just start saying "no" to any street they find offers them nothing but the same chain outlets they can find from Anchorage to Miami.

Let's hope Katz is right, and that the Boothbay Harbors of America don't end up being historic relics in a sea of dull commercial sameness.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

Copyright 2004, Washington Post Writers Group

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