Arian Horbovetz (Twitter: @Arianhorbovetz) is a Strong Towns member who blogs at The Urban Phoenix. This post, republished from his site with permission, gets at a really important wrinkle in how we talk and think about local economic growth: a lot of what looks like progress isn’t really growth if you look at the bigger picture. It’s more like a natural, ongoing churn—a redistribution of economic activity within the city, as people spend their dollars in different places.
Horbovetz urges you to think about this illusion of wealth—or of that favorite planner buzzword, “vibrancy”—the next time a city near you pursues, or subsidizes, a “shiny and new” entertainment district, casino, or sports facility. We agree. Enjoy his take on the topic below. –Strong Towns staff.
I took a sip from my discount K-cup “brewed” coffee as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, which included a rather pedestrian blend of friends’ bar photos from last Saturday night, cat videos, government shutdown details and local news stories. One of these stories caught my eye as I put down my java. A favorite neighborhood bar is closing in Rochester: Scotland Yard.
Mind you, I didn’t frequent this place much as frankly, there are probably 40 bars and breweries between where I live and their location. Still, when I was on that side of downtown, I liked to pop in and always had a good time.
In a Democrat and Chronicle article, owner Terry Owen was quoted saying “it’s just getting too hard to fight for the same dollar.”
Not long ago, the neighborhood bar Johnny’s Irish Pub closed in the city after 21 years of service. The owner of Scotland Yard attributed closings to the rise of craft breweries in and around Rochester.
I finished off my coffee, picked up my phone and now here I am, writing this reminder to all of us. In your city, the number of options for good food and booze has likely increased significantly over the last 10 years. But since our median incomes haven’t doubled, or even close, the amount of money we allocate for eating and drinking out has obviously not increased enough to support them all. Instead, we will likely see a virtual “survival of the shiniest” as the new and hip trends overtake the old standbys.
And this is nothing new in urban commerce, especially with regard to the restaurant and bar scene. Evolution has always been a part of this dynamic. It is, however, something we often take for granted. As our options for a night out grow and increase, be it a sporting event, a bar crawl or an incredible Farm-To-Table dinner, our budgets to enjoy all that our cities have to offer likely do not. The more plausible reality is that we simply take our money that we used to spend in a few places and we spend it in a few others, a scenario that will obviously lead to the untimely end for many of our longstanding options.
This concept is especially important to understand when we talk about casinos, large scale entertainment districts, and the subsidizing of entertainment options. Ultimately, these new and shiny things will simply split our budgets further, putting a greater hurt on other local business owners. When we talk about growth, or an increase in “vibrancy,” we have to be very conscious about where the energy (in this case, patrons) is coming from. There is only so much financial and temporal fuel for growth and change in our communities, so when talking about growth, we must be cognizant of what is growing and what is just being redistributed.
I love craft breweries, and I love the new nightlife scene in my city of Rochester. I will continue to visit these new venues because I enjoy them. The effort going into design, the thought about the flavors of food and the genius behind the newest cocktail or brew… all these things are creating excitement. But let’s at least be realistic about the fact that, at some point, the growth of these entertainment forums is simply a redistribution of patrons and dollars from one former standby to the newest hotspot, and the “growth” we see is in large part nothing more than a shift of where we spend our time and money.
(All photos by Arian Horbovetz)