By this time next week, the second year of the downtown streetscape project should be underway. Like last year, it’s going to be a headache.
Unlike last year, area residents have a better idea of just how big a headache it is likely to be for businesses in the blocks where construction work is taking place. It was clear as the work wrapped up late last fall that it had hit business harder than officials had hoped, possibly harder than they had anticipated.
There’s not much Ottumwa residents can do about the disruption. Projects on this scale simply are disruptive. But there’s definitely something people can do about the damage to businesses.
Closing East Main Street for a block or two does not mean you don’t have access to the businesses behind the barriers. It’s less convenient, sure. But the distance you would have to walk from the parking spaces most of them have behind the stores is probably less than what you’re perfectly willing to tolerate at a shopping mall. Heck, the distance from one of the large public lots to those stores is less.
And, unlike the mega-malls, money spent at the stores downtown stays in the community. It’s not being vacuumed up by a national retailer or sponged out through the internet. It’s helping local businesspeople stay in business.
What’s lost when local businesses close? There’s a lot, and it goes beyond the livelihoods of owners and employees. A local business that closes isn’t sponsoring your kids’ sports teams. They’re not giving teens a shot at a first job. They’re not maintaining a legacy that can pass down for generations.
Think about Ottumwa’s iconic businesses. There are more than a few. The Canteen immediately comes to mind. It’s an iconic location for the state. But there’s also Bailey’s and Bookins. The story about the latter’s pending closure was one of the most-read items of the year on our website.
When you quit going to a store just because it’s a few extra steps away, you deny those businesses the opportunity to survive. They lose the chance to find ways to endure, to become the next touchstone businesses for Ottumwa.
Yes, small businesses have a high failure rate even when they aren’t hit by construction right outside the front door. Running a small business is always an exercise in faith, a bet on your ability to manage things well and make money a little bit faster than the bills come due.
But it’s also a bet on the community. Small business owners are betting on their neighbors, their friends. They’re betting that the people of the community will see value in what they’re doing, and that they will be willing to acknowledge that value by becoming customers.
Don’t let that be a bad bet just because you’re not willing to walk a little bit further.
Small businesses are a hallmark of a community that isn’t just surviving, but one that is finding ways to thrive. They’re key to Ottumwa’s economy in ways most people never imagine.
Please, support small businesses in Ottumwa and make a special effort to do so with those facing disruptions they can’t control.