Should St. Louis Consider Limiting Chain Stores? Is There a Better Way to Support Local Businesses?

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Should business districts limit the number of national chains that can open? Are local stores and restaurants at a disadvantage? Over the past several years a group named Our City has successfully pushed for limits on new chain stores in San Francisco. As a result, today all chain store applications must be presented to the San Francisco Planning Commission and submitted for public review.

But the San Francisco Business Times is calling the changes a way to “hassle chain stores,” and blaming the review process, in part, for increasing retail vacancies. It seems to be that the crux of the issue is this (from the editorial): “While existing retailers can remain, any new vacancies in most San Francisco shopping districts are now off-limits to chain stores if opponents choose to kick up a fuss.”

Now longtime Bloomington, Indiana Mayor Mark Kruzan appears ready to limit chain stores from his idyllic southern Indiana college town. I lived in Bloomington from 1996-2004 and the influx of chain stores has largely happened since I moved to St. Louis. When I return (I happen to be back there this weekend) the presence of more and more chain stores is glaring. The town is certainly changing.

Immediately next to the formal entrance to the Indiana University campus at Sample Gates you can find Urban Outfitters, Dunkin Donuts, Noodles & Co. and Panda Express alongside independents such as Nick’s English Hut, the Bicycle Garage and Laughing Planet.

Word of Kruzan’s intention to address the growing presence of chain stores has brought out the worst of the town and gown split (and some simple ignorance) on the local newspaper’s comment board. I don’t know if it’s consolation or despair I feel, but the crazies are not limited to our own Post-Dispatch.

Of the issue, comments included: “They should be less concerned with chain businesses and more concerned about demolishing local businesses to make wave for more luxury apartments for spoiled ass college students…That is downtown’s REAL problem.” “There is nothing to go Down Town for any more. Although you could eat out on the sidewalk and swat the flies and watch the rowdy intoxicated students and Detroit hoodlums walk by.” In general comments tend to say, “anti-chain store rules are idiotic, but it doesn’t matter because no chain is going to locate downtown because there’s no parking, and students are destroying downtown”.

It appears that any ordinance proposed in the future would be limited to the main commercial strip connecting the university to the courthouse square and the square itself. This is a relatively small area, perhaps the size of the Delmar Loop. And for anyone who has not been to Bloomington, rest assured, you can find any and all chain stores you desire. The issue has gained relevance as several high-profile lots are being developed has luxury apartments with chain store retail at ground level.

Of course there’s a flip side to this issue as well. Local retailers, boutiques and independent restaurants likely cannot serve all residents. It’s wonderful to have $25 parmesan cheese available in the city, but what about those who want Provel? This is especially true with clothing. The recent rumor of an Old Navy opening in downtown St. Louis would be a welcome trend in this way.

The issue isn’t simple. We enjoy our St. Louis Bread Company, but now it’s a corporate behemoth. Once upon a time the California Pizza Kitchen was the model of a neighborhood start up. Would you welcome a Peet’s, but not a Starbuck’s? The Foot Locker and Blockbuster stores in the Delmar Loop just recently closed and their departure is being lamented by some who enjoyed their convenience and those who simply had become used to them.

So where do you stand on anti-chain store efforts? Should the Delmar Loop limit the number of chain stores? What about revitalizing commercial strips such as The Grove or Morganford? Is it enough to limit signage or require a particular design? Is the issue aesthetic? And what about franchises owned by locals?

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