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Downtown! Who Cares?

Waterville businessman and member, REM's Board of Directors
(May 5,2000)

That was a comment overheard at a public meeting on developing the waterfront of downtown Waterville. This is an interesting and unfortunate comment that probably can be heard throughout many downtowns, in any state, at any time.

We have seen the deterioration of our small towns all over the country. From the heydays of the 50's and 60's (when downtown was an exciting adventure, a social activity, a happening), to today's (rush around in a car over half of the State to save a buck, shop more and enjoy it less) 2000's, we have had a tragic change in our society--tragic because our young people, our sons and daughters and grandchildren will possibly never enjoy our downtown of fun. We could go out on a Friday night and get our shopping done (all the stores were open and we could walk from one end of town to the other), grab a bite to eat, and take in a show without moving the car. We could meet all our friends, we knew who we were doing business with, and everyone said hello. Sounds like a scene from a 40's or 50's Broadway musical, but it was a scene that could be found in almost every small town in this country on any given Friday night.

In fact, entire downtowns even started opening on Monday nights just to accommodate the shoppers. There were stores of all kinds. In every town of more than 15,000 there were women's stores (at least four of them), there were department stores (always had two plus a Sears, Penney's, or Wards), there were real men's stores (at least two), shoe stores (yes, you heard me right), plus a variety of other places to shop. You could go in, get waited on and talk to someone who could really help you. Special orders were common place, not an exception. You could talk with the head buyer (that was the owner). You could complain to someone who would care and explain what you wanted for next season. You could even bring things home "on approval" (that is, without paying for an item and bringing it back the next day). Sure, there were some drawbacks. Sometime you paid a little more, but you did not have to drive 20 or 30 (or more) miles to find it.

But wait a minute. If it was so great, how come it isn't like that anymore?  If we stop to look around, we still have good stores "downtown." Places where you can meet, socialize, shop, find an owner in the store, get special orders, and even find someone who can help you who even knows about the product. But you better look quickly, because they will all be gone in the wink of an eye. You see, "downtown, who cares?" is more than a couple of words. It is an attitude that has destroyed our downtowns and an attitude that will shift to "our town, who cares?." Then someone will be writing about how wonderful our towns used to be, how nice it once was to live in our community. How wonderful it USED to be.

WE STILL HAVE A CHANCE! We can still have an impact on our towns. Things will never be the same as they were. Nothing remains the same except change.  But we have a chance to keep our towns and our communities they way we want them. We care about downtown and we care about our town. The money we spend in our downtown helps us pay lower taxes. You heard me again. When you spend a buck in your town, part of that tax goes back to the town. When you order it out of a book or buy it on the Internet, guess where your shipping and handling goes? Industries look closely at the shopping area of a town before locating in that area. Do jobs and taxes mean anything to us? Bet we wouldn't hear a "who cares" on that one. We can all make that difference. We have an organization by the name of REM, formed for just that purpose. We need to support it and all it stands for. It was formed out of a love of community.

It was formed by the community so that our children and our grandchildren would have someplace to work, shop, and enjoy. We still have a downtown (whether it is Fairfield, Oakland, Waterville or Winslow), with all of the advantages. With our participation, we will bring more businesses back. It will never be like it was before, but we have the opportunity to make it better. We can compete, we can be unique, and we can survive if everyone will open up and contribute.  No amount of effort is too little. We can and we will. "Downtown! Who cares?" We do!