Frederick To Ponder A Ban On Chain Stores Downtown

Frederick Maryland has been undergoing a long term renaissance. Some 35 years ago, downtown Frederick, Maryland suffered a serious flood, one of many. Since that time, the Carroll Creek project has instituted flood control measures, the downtown has been resurrected and the flood control park is now a beautiful linear park, modeled after the Riverwalk in San Antonio. The downtown area is populated with lots of little, unique and usually locally owned stores. The restaurants are unique and locally owned and, for the most part, excellent.

In the past year, since the opening of the Linear Park, high end condo are now going in, raising the property values and increasing the appeal of Frederick. But a new problem is raising its head–national chain store’s and franchises. The City is considering a ban on such stores and operations, although there is a Ben & Jerry’s, Five Guys Burgers, a Talbot’s and a couple other national stores already downtown.

The ban puts into question the future of downtown Frederick. There are a couple of factors going into the debate. The first is the growth of downtown and the direction the city wants to take. Much of downtown Frederick is a historical district, complete with restrictions on changing the facades and structures of the physical buildings. Thus, the physical character is unlikely to change much. But the feel is a different story.

With major chain stores, some of the charm and small town feel of Frederick would be lost. With all of the small locally owned stores, there is a quaintness to the city that can only be mimicked but never duplicated by larger stores, even if those stores opened smaller operations. Part of the small town appeal is that many of the stores participate in First Saturday and Gallery Walks, where the stores stay open later and pets are welcome. What would be the impact on those events in light of chain stores. Many shops in Frederick close shortly after business hours during the week, but chain shores will be able to operate later.

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But at the same time, the development in Frederick is driving property values, and therefore rents, higher. There will come a time when the boutique and small shops will no longer be able to pay such rents. The turnover in shops is a common feature in any retail environment, as businesses fail for any number of reasons. But if a business cannot open up or operate due to high rent, then the only stores or operations that can survive will either have to have deep pockets or be willing to operate at a loss–which means only large chain stores.

The free market guy in me says let the big stores come. If the city and its residents really don’t want them here, then they will not patronize those stores and the stores will eventually leave. The market will sort them out without the need of the City to get invovled. But at the same time, I love Frederick as it is. The downtown and its stores continue to draw lots of people despite literally being surrounded on all sides by big box stores. The city has not avoided big box stores and national chains, indeed in many ways the city and county governments have courted such enterprises. But the downtown is still quaint, almost anachronistic in it appearance and appeal and I would hate to see that go.

For me then, the solution appears to be a split. Allow these larger stores and franchises to come to town, but limit the number of business permits issued and require strict adherence to zoning and historical regulations. For many large franchise and chain stores, the physical space of downtown Frederick may be too restrictive for their operation. Franchises like Ben & Jerry’s or the Greene Turtle can serve a population and a city and not have a deep impact on its appearance and feel. But franchises are different than chain stores. Franchises are still, usually, locally owned and operated, resulting in consistency with Frederick’s character.

Frederick residents will be surveyed on their thoughts and the debate will no doubt be raucous and possibly rancorous. In the end, the character of downtown Frederick is too valuable to just surrender. Allow chain stores and franchises, but limit their number.
A total ban serves no one, but unfettered entry also destroys one of the greatest things about where I live. Large town convenience outside the downtown area and small town charm inside it.

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