The Big Box Ballyhoo

This morning I was perusing my local paper (if you can call it that), The Morning Call, and felt a sinking disappointment that is hard to adequately explain.  The business beat reporter, Tyrone Richardson, devoted his entire weekly column to complaining about the lack of national chain restaurants in the Lehigh Valley.  He gives a brief mention to some local businesses that are okay in a pinch, according to him.  Now, look, I’m not saying I wouldn’t be overjoyed if Costco decided to open shop nearby, and I certainly understand why many people are clamoring for some of these national names.  But, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon that Jeff Pooley has been driving and give Tyrone a little back talk.

Tyrone, its not news that the Lehigh Valley isn’t a top destination for major retail chains, we’re not a major market.  What is news is that within my relatively-short lifetime, we in the Lehigh Valley lost our two biggest employers and somehow both Allentown and Bethlehem have managed to diversify their economies enough to not have a devastating loss of population.  As Tyrone mentions in his article, the Lehigh Valley is a growing region that attracts people from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and elsewhere.  Both cities have abundant entrepreneurs who have literally led the way to this diversification, opening small businesses in the retail, service, manufacturing, and technology sectors that would make people in many parts of Ohio, Western New York, Michigan, etc double over with envy.  Its news that even in this hideous economy, many of these business owners are digging in and hanging on, while big name national chains like Quizno’s make their quick exits.  Its news that against all odds, new small businesses are opening, while big chains put the brakes on their expansion plans and decide to wait it out.  Just something to think about the next time you decide to devote 100% of your precious column inches to writing about big name retail and why there’s not more of it in the Lehigh Valley.

I’m preparing to leave this week for my annual vacation in Saratoga Springs, NY.  I could, and probably will have a whole separate post on the numerous reasons that this is my favorite town to spend time in, but the primary reason is the awesome power of its downtown – home to dozens of independently-owned restaurants, shops, bars, galleries, and cafes.  When I stroll down Broadway looking for Breakfast on Thursday morning, I know for sure that I’m not going to have any regrets that I can’t enjoy a Dunkin Donut.

10 Responses to “The Big Box Ballyhoo”

  1. 1 Bernie O'Hare August 1, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    For the most part, I’ll take a small, locally owned, business.

  2. 2 Katie Bee August 2, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Given our location, I think that a lot of Lehigh Valley residents get caught in the trap of constantly comparing the Valley to the other places you mentioned (Philly, NYC) instead of other towns and cities that have lost their major employers. You make a good point in revealing this.

  3. 3 Katie Bee August 2, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Additionally, have you ever listened to James Howard Kunstler’s podcast? Since he lives in Saratoga, a lot of the commentary uses Saratoga Springs as the example of how – or how not – to create a livable urban environment. It is worth a listen:

  4. 4 Capri Roth August 2, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Katie: Great point about our location giving cause for comparison to Philly and NYC even though we’re really nothing like either of those metropolises (metropoli? metropoles?). I haven’t ever listened to JHK’s podcast, although I am familiar with some of his writing. I didn’t realize he was a Saratoga resident. I’m sure I’ll ruminate a bit more on the topic once I make my “Saratoga” post, but the interesting (to me) conflict in Saratoga is that it really is a fantastic place to visit, I think it would make a pretty superb place to live (my longest stay was for 3 months while doing a summer session at Skidmore) – but it has become extraordinarily expensive. I suppose this is no surprise, but compared to the Saratoga that I visited as a child, the “new” Saratoga is a pretty posh town. What I’d be curious to know in comparing Saratoga to other small cities that have undergone similar revitalization in their downtowns is whether the two go hand in hand or whether you can fancy the place up without pricing out half the residents? A topic for another time, perhaps.

  5. 5 LV Transplant August 2, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Capri, I tend to agree. It’s no secret that I miss the heck out of Trader Joe’s, but it’s hardly big box. MacArthur Rd in Whitehall is my idea of hell. Give me a cute little downtown full of thriving small businesses any day.

    Not to defend him, but… Tyrone probably gets 100 e-mails a day from people who miss their Costco, so he writes to respond to reader interest. Plus he is likely one of three paid writers in the MC newsroom these days and doesn’t have time to get out and smell the fresh air too often. Last week he did a piece on Apotheca Salon on Third Street in Bethlehem that told a story, informed readers, and promoted a new small business, too. I’d love to see more of that (and less about some Rite Aid in Lower Milford Twp closing).

  6. 6 Chris Casey August 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I am with you on this, I even think we have too many damn WaWas.
    I would rather keep my commerce in my own neighborhood than see my money shuttled off to a HQ three states away. I try to avoid Home Depot and Lowes for the most part, I like the indepwndent Bell’s hardware on Trexlertown road. I can go in there and talk to the owner not as a guy employed by Big Box Co, but as a guy who lives in the Valley. It’s the same with the locally owned dining establishments. You walk into Louies’ just off Lehigh Street, and you can talk to Louie. Try that at Buca or Carabba’s.
    The big point is these owners are rooted in the community and invested in it, and the Big Box/ Chain gangs (And that pun is intentional, the way they treat employees) are not. They will bail if the profit margin doesn’t make a certain level, while a local will stick it out as long as they are above water.

    I can live without the Big Box/Chain gangs.

  7. 7 Blind Willow Book Shop August 3, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    lower milford twp has a rite aid?

  8. 8 In the know August 10, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    You go, girl!

    The local retailer deserves our attention and dollars much more than the national chain. For one thing, the profits stay in the Lehigh Valley. For another thing, it makes each neighborhood unique and interesting to have different locally owned shops. The big supporter of revitalizing neighborhoods through local retail is of course the Main Street Program. Emmaus has one and it has done wonders. 7th Street in Allentown has one that is transforming that neighborhood. Now Hamilton Street has one. Any community can be turned around if action is local and grassroots. It all comes from living and working in our traditional neighborhoods and supporting the local businesses.

  1. 1 ‘The Big Box Ballyhoo’ | Allentown Afterthoughts Trackback on August 3, 2010 at 11:59 am

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