There's this conventional wisdom floating around that the health of our village centers is contingent on the health of their anchors, grocery stores. Example here:
[Wilde Lake] Village Board Chairman Vincent Marando told [General Growth Vice President Greg] Hamm that the village had gone without a grocery store for a year and a half. The Giant store at that location closed in September 2006.While not stated explicitly, the underlying sentiment in this statement seems to be that without a grocery store, the health of the village center is in peril. But is that really the case?
"I'm not sure the health of the Village Center can be held hostage for the next couple years," he said.
Once but, perhaps, not anymore.
For instance, compare the offerings at Wilde Lake's village center versus those in Oakland Mills (PDF) and ask yourself: Which would you rather live near?
I can count the businesses in Oakland Mills with just my hands (nine establishments). In order to count those in Wilde Lake (19), I need to take my shoes off, and trust me, you don't want that.
Wilde Lake has everything Oakland Mills does and much more to boot. Yet, the former is the center without a grocery store.
Many hands have been wrung over the future of our village centers, about how we keep these vital components of our community relevant in the face of significant social and economic change. But we seem to keep coming back to the idea that an anchor grocery store is the most essential element. Maybe it's time to ditch that idea.
Back in the day, grocery stores were physically smaller and drew from smaller geographic areas. Today, however, with increasingly diversified tastes and shopper preferences, the thought of getting groceries at the store that happens to be closest to you is almost quaint. People want to go where they want to go, not where they should go because of geography and some mushy ideals about community.
Big families like Costco. Funky folks like Trader Joe's. Hippies like natural food stores. Rich hippies like Whole Foods. Cheapskates like Wal-Mart, Target or some other discount retailer that squeezes everything under the sun into their aisles. People who want it all like Wegmans. And so on.
To be sure, there is still a small segment of the population that must or chooses to walk to get groceries. And most of us don't want to go 20 minutes out of our way to get milk, toilet paper or some other essential item. In general, however, the bulk of our grocery shopping seems to be done on a weekly basis at the store of our preference, assuming it's within a reasonable distance (10 - 20 minute drive).
If this is how society has evolved, why should we fight ourselves and insist on full-sized, modern grocery stores in every village center?
To be sure, the "daily needs" element of village centers is still very relevant. Dry cleaners, banks, barber shops, and the like all belong in village centers, as do places that provide basic food and grocery needs. Beyond these requirements, restaurants and other small businesses seem like the most appropriate uses. The dearth of such establishments is bemoaned by anyone who has sought good, non-chain restaurants, specialty items or just decent customer service -- that is, all of us.
Admittedly, I haven't fully thought out the repercussions of such a shift in thinking. Perhaps, as we ponder their future, we need to look at our village centers as a whole, instead of individually, and try to understand how they can serve as retail and commercial hubs for neighborhood needs as well as those of the broader community. Perhaps I'm wildly off base and most people still want to go to whatever store is closest.
Regardless, a discussion about the potential of post-grocery store village centers seems to be in order for our sake and that of one our community's most cherished institutions.