Sometimes, people just don’t get it. I have to write an article today about Grand Central’s chili cookoff, and when I write it I need to not editorialize, so I’m getting it off my chest here.
Don’t misunderstand, when I say some people don’t get it, I don’t mean Grand Central. I have no earthly idea whether or not they get it, but I do know I enjoyed the chili and the shops there, by and large, interest me enough that I go there. No, this is who doesn’t get it: Clearwater.
While I was at the cookoff, I took a picture of a couple sampling some -let’s call it hearty, although that doesn’t really describe the sheer volume its meaty wonder- chili. I got their names and the guy volunteered that he was the vice-chairman of something called the Clearwater Downtown Partnership. He had traveled to Grand Central to get ideas on how to revitalize Clearwater’s downtown. Now, I worked in Clearwater’s downtown for five-ish years and lived in Clearwater for 23 (give or take a few for college), and the two areas could not be more different. They share a county; that’s about it.
I think I may have offended this guy once we started talking, but some people are just so damn clueless I really can’t help it. I’m not saying that Grand Central is any better than Clearwater, but to think you can compare the two is just laughable. Clearwater and St. Pete are both huge cities, yes, but Clearwater is- how did I write it once- a city that never quite grew into its suburbs. NONE of the neighborhoods have centers; everything there is on the edge of something else. Plus the housing downtown long ago isolated itself from the downtown itself, turning all decent property over to either municipal government or Scientology. The neighborhoods in St. Pete that have their own centers all have homes around them and in them that support them and are currently almost all undergoing some sort of real estate renaissance that brings in more money than ever before. But these people- the ones who commit to one of St. Pete’s communities- create the atmosphere by living where they work and creating businesses that are logical extensions of themselves, not what they think the area needs.
To look at what St. Pete is doing and go back to Clearwater and say “if we have a chili cook off, if we have an art festival, and if we open x number of salons and three restaurants, one with sushi, THEN we’ll revitalize downtown”, well, that’s a clear indication that you don’t get what makes Grand Central or any of the others what they are. You cannot replicate style; you have to first bring the substance. But you can’t import substance, either. ANY “downtown” or “business district” will serve the needs of its immediate occupants and neighbors. For example, the “business” area of my neighborhood has Atwaters and a shop that I’m fairly certain sells stolen merchandise. We also have a very successful MetroPCS retailer, a few crab shacks, and a Walgreens. Could you have a chili cook off here and turn it around? Nope, but when they bring out the smokers and project Monday night football onto the outside wall of Atwaters, you get a crowd. It may not be my ideal community, but it has its own thing going.
And, see, here’s what the CDP doesn’t get: Clearwater does, too. The community there has been telling them- albeit tacitly- that it doesn’t need a downtown. Businesses may want one, but they have no one to serve. What, a couple hundred government employees during the day and the Scientologists the rest of the time? The Scientologists- say what you will- are very self sufficient. They have their own community. And the rich neighbors to the south don’t ever go downtown- but I don’t think that type of opulence is something you should alter yourself in hopes of attracting. The rich won’t keep a downtown afloat; the working class and tourists will. So, OK, head north. Whatcha got there? A bunch of homes that are ripe for redevelopment. But until that happens, no point in trying to redo downtown… again. No one close can or will support it.
Grand Central isn’t the greatest, don’t misunderstand. But I only say that because it doesn’t appeal to me; there are many that it serves very, very well. But that area happened largely in part because the people that lived there wanted it. It wasn’t the businesses by themselves. Let people who live there build it, and then they will come.
And I’m pretty sure you don’t get there with vision statements and consultants. I think it’s more of a common sense approach.