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Opinion

Keeping it local helps Main Street thrive

Opinion

Community support and spirit can help neighbourhood and small town centres prosper away from the brighter lights, writes Eduardo de la Fuente.

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I’m sitting at an outdoor table at Pallet Café on Main Street at Nairne in the Adelaide Hills.

I order via the café’s app. Dozens of cars turn up and park either side of Main Street, many of the occupants Pallet-bound. Some pick up their order and return to their cars, others find a table and linger. A group of four is celebrating a birthday, the owner of a local firm crosses the road with an employee for a meeting. Café staff deliver coffees to nearby businesses and the owner interacts with people as they arrive. It feels remarkably “buzzy” for a peri-metropolitan town with a population of only 4,842 (2016 census).

The scene I experienced echoes one described by the UK founder of the Totally Locally campaign, Chris Sands. A brand and marketing consultant, he was holidaying in Portugal when the idea for a buy local strategy occurred to him. The Yorkshire Post reported:

“[Sands] watched as the butcher crossed the road to deal with his finances at the high street bank. He clocked the bank clerks leaving their building each lunchtime for the deli and café just a stone’s throw away, and he saw too café staff buying their meat from the butcher before preparing the menu’s selection of dishes.”

What the founder of Totally Locally observed in the Portuguese street that so captivated him were the “actions of an interdependent community”. We often think of economics and community as opposed. But when it comes to issues like place vibrancy and regional economic development, community and commerce are better seen as allies. Sands recently posted on LinkedIn he has finished writing a handbook for place practitioners, with the catchy title, The Economics of Being Nice. It is due out in early 2022.

Closer to home, we have organisations like Mainstreet SA. It has mobilised resources and tools for main street practitioners to deal with the challenges presented by COVID-19. Such challenges are pronounced. As reported recently in InDaily, demand for retail premises in suburban shopping strips like The Parade and Prospect Road have recovered but they “stand in stark contrast with CBD strips” which feature increased shop vacancies.

In peri-urban and regional areas, the story is also mixed. Anecdotal reports are that some main streets are doing well because their customer base is local and workers are switching to WFH; less positive news when main streets are dependent on interstate or international visitors.

As I stressed in an earlier InDaily article on population shifts to the peri-urban, COVID-19 has helped to bring into sharper focus what makes for a “good life”. The Mainstreet SA website notes the pandemic “has reinforced the role played by main streets as the economic, social and cultural heart of their communities”; and served to remind us of their value “through the goods and services they provide as well as the social and cultural interactions we all enjoy”. Rare positive news associated with the pandemic.

We often think of economics and community as opposed. But when it comes to issues like place vibrancy and regional economic development, community and commerce are better seen as allies.

When I approached Mount Barker City Council for a comment on how Nairne’s Main Street has fared under COVID-related challenges, and how it saw Main Street’s post-COVID future, Mayor Ann Ferguson responded: “Nairne offers a rural lifestyle together with an evolving ‘buzz’ along its appealing Main Street… [it] has fared well during COVID, thanks to the attraction of new investment, support from local traders and Council’s successful ‘Shop Local Campaign.’” The latter is featured in a video, shared on Facebook by the council, with the theme: “Live local, travel local and shop local”. Whether through policy or by grassroots adoption, the buy local ethos seems to have resonated during COVID.

Locally embedded entrepreneurs have been central to main streets faring better than expected under COVID. I spoke to Tania Lovering, owner of Nairne Main Street shop, Haven in the Hills. She recounted how she had signed the shop lease just before the devastating Cuddlee Creek fire, and then COVID struck. The first SA lockdown coincided with the first few months of her business.

“The community got right behind us,” she said. “We were closed for nine weeks, and people were seeing things they liked in the shop window and calling me… the community kept me open”. Lovering credits the ability of her fledgling business to survive partly to the fact the café across the road – the one mentioned above – was deemed an “essential service” and people had a reason to go to Main Street. Although, she doesn’t mention it in the interview, I’ve gleaned she has provided some of the furniture and displays currently used by the café. A nice example of Sand’s interdependent community and the mutual benefits of the “economics of being nice”.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that a business such as hers has a robust social media presence and the entrepreneur in question displays a significant capacity for visual storytelling through such media. She is not alone, in this respect, as increasing numbers of small-scale entrepreneurs realise that digital branding and storytelling is essential to their businesses. But what happens on the ground, in main streets, remains all important. In the case of a shop like hers, on any given day the shop’s vintage furniture and unique objects spill out on to the sidewalk announcing the shop is open; after it closes its windows come alive with various types of lit decorations.

American urbanist Janes Jacobs described the economic and social life of streets as a type of ballet in which many people and many things play their part. The vitality of main streets depends on everyday routines and the choices we make.

Without realising it, many of us are participants in the choreographing of our main streets.

Eduardo de la Fuent is Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Justice and Society, University of South Australia; Fellow of the Institute for Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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