by Jill Smith

Window-shopping has always been a favorite American pastime. That's where you stroll from one interesting retail window to another, visually dissecting which one might be worth a visit inside to "acquire" some of that window dressing. In Spokane, this sport is primarily practiced in the shopping malls, because in downtown the streets are lined with windows to look into and only empty spaces behind them staring back.

It's challenging to be a successful small retail store in today's economy no matter what city you are in, but Spokane, like every city, needs those local specialty stores in order to have an economically vibrant downtown. Cities that have lost their downtowns are the ones with high drug-use rates, gangs, crime and the undesirable activities that move into empty buildings if good retail doesn't. Malls and the mall chain stores are necessary and provide good retail anchors, but it's the small, regionally unique stores that create the character of a city. That "one-of-a-kind"-ness is what draws tourists here to spend, caters to our local buying tastes and ends up making us a city that's proud of the special places that we have. There aren't chain stores any place else like Joel, Boo Radley's, Wonders of the World, the Pottery Place or the Children's Corner Book Shop. They belong to Spokane.

So just what does it take to fill up some of those windows downtown with interesting things and viable businesses? Small specialty stores have a hard time existing in today's marketplace if they don't cluster and create the draw of a combined destination. It was with that thought in mind that a group of investors bought the majority of the old buildings on the First Avenue block between Monroe and Madison. Named "RailSide Center," this area of previously empty buildings is becoming an incubator for small culinary endeavors (The Brooklyn Deli, Far West Billiards, the Tryst juice and coffee bar), unique stores (GoodWorks Gallery, Bitters, Gifts from the Heart, Art by Yourself, the Art Is Art Gallery) creative businesses (EarthGoods, Corner Productions, Burchett Photography, Mayday Visual Marketing) and entertainment (the CenterStage dinner theater and event facility).

Other small "specialty destinations" are starting to happen around downtown, and they will become the destination hubs from which other stores branch out. Spokane is lucky to have a very walkable downtown area, with many of its old buildings able to house small groupings of stores. Other cities have found it profitable to pull together a destination of stores that offer items or services that are related, like stores all catering to pets, to children or to seniors.

Small retail renters are either relocating from another space or starting a new business. In either case, flexible leases will encourage them. For instance, RailSide Center offers flexible terms, step rents, month-to-month rental spaces, discounts for renters doing their own building improvements and reasonable rates. There is also a strong interest in areas that can offer "live, work and sell" spaces. With all the renewed interest in downtown living, people are looking for innovative approaches to "work spaces" in the downtown area.

Small retail stores also need assistance in first attracting those window-shoppers and then encouraging them to enter and then do some actual shopping. Campaigns and advertising centered on buying from small local businesses helps customers realize that not only do they have the thrill of a unique, local item or service, but they also cause more money to flow within our local economy. The great "Spokane Parking Myth" still befuddles people into thinking there is no close parking and that it costs too much. Are these the same people who happily pay $3 to $4 for a coffee? We also need to let those window-shoppers know that Spokane has one of the safest downtowns for window-shopping among U.S. cities.

Luckily, downtown Spokane has so much happening right now that it's becoming an exciting place! More retail endeavors are opening monthly, and the word is getting out. As downtown awakens from a long economic rest, window-shoppers had better get ready -- it's already becoming the place to be. See you 'round the block.

Jill Smith is the CEO of EarthGoods, LLC. She's also a member of the Odd Girls, LLC, owners and developers of the RailSide Center.

Publication date: 04/24/03

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