50 Years Ago

50 Years Ago

Ever wonder what downtown Madison will be like in 50 years?

I can remember what it was like 50 years ago, and I’m concerned that opportunities are being lost here, big time.

If you want to see what downtown Madison looked like even farther back — like the 1930s — then maybe you’ve watched the DVD “Madison At the Movies” which is sold by the Madison Main Street Project and also available for borrowing from the library. Of course, in those days, downtown Madison was all the Madison there was. The hilltop was mostly just farmland, with an occasional house here and there. Then there was old North Madison, centered on Green Road, which was a separate town until the early 1950s when Madison annexed it.

If you have seen the DVD, or plan to see it, you’ll notice busy streets, bustling businesses, all the things that go with a healthy business district (all downtown, of course, in those days). I can remember when I was a kid in the ’50s that Saturday nights were busy, busy, busy downtown. Then the merchants changed their “open” night to Friday so they could have Saturday and Sunday nights both off.

Many old merchants told me that this was a big mistake, because the farmers — much more numerous in those days — were much less likely to want to come to town on Friday night. Their farm schedule was built around the Saturday night shopping, and while Friday nights were busy for a number of years, I don’t think it ever attained the bustle of Saturdays.

Moving so many important public functions out of the downtown didn’t help either. This started about 1960, when the new high school on Clifty Drive was opened. In the years since then, we’ve seen the school administration office, the junior high, the Social Security office, and a number of others go “up on the hill,” as we Madisonians say. The argument usually is, “Well, that’s where the primary shopping and residential areas are now, and we’ve got to keep up with the times.”

Well, that’s true, as far as it goes. But what about the downtown? The changes have left it less and less healthy as the years have passed. Sure, it looks nice — picturesque old buildings and a historic district board to watch us like a hawk to make sure we don’t make any major changes without their approval. But increasingly, the businesses in those picturesque buildings are coming and going, opening and closing, the victims of high rents and utility bills, and not enough business. Recent large increases in Indiana property taxes have just made the situation worse, whether the merchant owns the building (often he or she doesn’t nowadays) or has to pay rent to a landlord.

The often-anemic business climate isn’t improved by the fact that most of these stores are selling things that people don’t really have to have. We’ve gotten into the habit around Madison of calling them “antique shops,” although “gift shop” would be a better description of most of them. The people that run them are worthy folks who want to make a living as a merchant, but when you’re selling luxury items, you need the kind of traffic flow that’s only furnished by tourists.

And of course the powers that be around Madison keep assuring us that we have plenty of tourists — look, Mr. Skeptic, here are the figures for last year, if you don’t believe me! — and that our tourism industry is doing just fine. Well, they have the figures and I don’t, so I can’t say that they’re not right. But I know what these old eyes tell me when I look up and down Main Street on a typical business day. And what I DON’T see, is a lot of people who look like they might be on vacation. What I often see, is people who obviously got off one of the steamboats docked here for a few hours, walking up and down the street, looking into the windows of businesses that are, unfortunately, often closed.

Besides being mostly in a luxury items field, many of our downtown merchants are, as a friend of mine once said, “Living in 1958.” He said that opening at 9 a.m. and closing at 5 p.m., and never being open on Sunday, is a good way to have a failing business in today’s market.

So what’s the answer? Well, I think that if we’re going to claim we’re a tourist center, then we should go out and aggressively change our downtown in ways that would attract a lot of tourists, not just a trickle like we get now. That’s what Little Nashville, and Gatlinburg, Tenn., did.

What would those ways be? That’s something the community would have to decide. Or rather, if our elected leaders, and those they appoint to help them, make decisions about major changes, then they’ll have to be changes that the majority of Madisonians can live with.

For years, a determined minority here has pushed the idea that this is a tourist mecca. Meanwhile, a much larger segment of the community, while tolerating that idea, has grumbled that “What we really need is more factories, to provide jobs.” Well, folks, we’ve been losing some of the plants we already had, during the past couple of years. Given our lack of proximity to an interstate, we may find that we have to put all our eggs in the tourism basket, if we want to prosper and advance as a community.

But that will take a collective decision on the part of most Madisonians. In the last few years we’ve gotten more arguing done than anything else.

Let’s think about it. The clock is ticking for downtown Madison.

Old Corporal <corporalko@yahoo.com>

Our downtown’s future, – Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 18:06:22 (EDT)

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