[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]
Leigh Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze, came to Columbia for a reason.
“Columbia was just the right size for me,” she said. “It’s easy to open a business here. St. Louis is intimidating.”
She had enough money to buy some basic equipment but not enough to open a store.
Lockhart found a home in the front corner of Lakota Coffee Co., next door to where she opened her store about a year later, in 1998.
It’s a simple story about how a local business got off the ground. But today’s Columbia isn’t the one Lockhart came to 10 years ago to start a small business. It isn’t even the same Columbia of three years ago.
In August 2002, Chili’s opened on Conley Road. Two months later, an International House of Pancakes opened next to it. A year later, Longhorn Steakhouse came to Columbia, also next to Chili’s.
Most recently, Romano’s Macaroni Grill opened in January. Krispy Kreme and Chuck E. Cheese’s will soon come to town. Old Navy and Bed Bath & Beyond will join Famous Barr, which opened in October 2003 on Stadium Boulevard.
Brian Ash, Bambino’s owner and Sixth Ward city councilman, has a theory: When a city’s population reaches 100,000, large chains move in. Columbia is discovering there’s something to this theory. As the city’s population teeters around 90,000, the large chains are making their move.
“I think there will be a lot of consumers happy to see them come,” Ash said. “There will also be a lot of retailers that won’t share that same enthusiasm.”
Some chains have worked their way into Columbia’s downtown area when at one time chains seemed to be limited to the Interstate 70 Business Loop.
“There are a lot of visibility issues playing into that,” said David Meyer, marketing director for Regional Economic Development Inc.
In the past year and a half, the franchises Quiznos, Nothing But Noodles, Cold Stone Creamery and Lion’s Choice have moved into Columbia’s downtown. Is this a necessary part of growth, or will an infestation of business chains change the face of Columbia?
“As a small-business owner, it’s a little disconcerting,” Ash said.
He said some historic buildings downtown are being bought and renovated. The developers want to charge more rent, and only large chains can afford it. The recently renovated Paramount Building on Ninth Street is the home of the Nothing But Noodles chain, which opened in August where Glenn’s Café had been.
“We’re meeting the demographic profiles of a lot of these national chains,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said. “There’s been no plan to make us fit into these profiles, but it apparently has happened.”
Adapting to change
Louis Adams works for the media-relations department of Brinker International, which owns Macaroni Grill and Chili’s. He said the company looks for three things when determining where to locate a store: a good residential population base, strong retail traffic and office space.
“When you have a combination of those three things in a concentrated area, it’s a great place to build a restaurant,” he said.
Brenda Holloway, spokeswoman for CEC Entertainment, which owns Chuck E. Cheese’s, said the company looks for population growth when determining locations for restaurants.
“We look at the trade area first, which is about a five-mile radius around the restaurant location,” Holloway said. “We look for families with young kids in the area.”
Hindman said that although there is a risk of Columbia becoming overrun by chains, he doesn’t see it happening.
“We don’t want chains driving local businesses out,” he said. “My hope is that chains will attract people to downtown. We need to keep on investing in the quality of life here so people will come in, compete and start local businesses.”
Carrie Gartner, the director of Columbia’s Special Business District, said she sees only positives in the way the city is growing.
“We’ve been drawing people,” Gartner said. “People are coming to see us.”
Gartner said people used to go to St. Louis for music, shopping and other entertainment.
In the eight years Gartner has been in Columbia, she has seen Columbia became that place as well, and she said she doesn’t see the city being overrun by chains or losing its charm.
“The District is the place where local businesses come,” Gartner said. “Chains have blended in well.”
Gartner said that Columbia’s downtown has always had business chains and that they have been able to coexist with locally owned businesses without taking away from the atmosphere of downtown.
“When the mall came in the mid-’70s, there was an awful disruption to business downtown,” said Lisa Bartlett, who has lived in Columbia for 29 years and has owned The Vintage Shop for the past four.
“I think there’s been a rebirth of people shopping at independently owned stores because they want more character.”
Gartner said the Columbia Mall and Columbia’s three Wal-Marts haven’t been a threat to downtown because of the uniqueness of its stores.
“We’ve found a niche,” Gartner said. “We’re not competing with a Wal-Mart or the mall. Instead of going head-to-head with other retailers, we’ve found something other retailers aren’t providing customers.”
Gartner said Columbia has been underserved for a while, so there has been a lot of growth
“It will level out eventually,” she said.
Ash agrees. He said Columbia is attracting chains as the population approaches 100,000, and he said another wave of chains will come once 100,000 is hit. But that it will stabilize, he said. Ash said he is a little concerned with the amount of chains coming, but he knows there isn’t a lot that can be done.
“You shouldn’t change the rules for the chains,” Ash said. “That’s the American way. We shouldn’t stop or prevent chains from coming here. That’s the free-market system. We just need to accentuate the positives that we do rather than tear them down.”
Local businesses respond
Measures are being taken to keep Columbia local in the shadow of the approaching and existing national chains.
Columbia Locally Owned Retail and Services, a nonprofit organization whose co-chairwoman is Lockhart, has tried to educate people about the benefits of spending money at a local business instead of a chain.
Ash’s restaurant is part of the organization, which formed last summer. In November, the alliance joined the national group, the American Independent Business Alliance, which includes 10 other similar organizations in North America.
“If you spend money at local businesses, the money will recycle more,” Ash said. “Places like Shakespeare’s give Columbia its character, not chains.”
According to the Columbia group’s Web site, 45 cents of each dollar spent is returned to the community, compared with 15 cents for every dollar spent at a chain store.
“A lot of the money that business chains make is spent elsewhere,” Lockhart said. “A lot of us small-business owners spend money locally.”
The group recently developed individual memberships. For $15, Columbia residents can support the local business alliance and receive discounts at many of the stores in the alliance. Memberships can be bought at The Vintage Shop, Ninth Street Video and The Arsenic Leopard.
Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said new chain businesses will have to adapt more to the city and the economy than Columbia will have to adapt to the new chains. There are restrictions businesses will have to abide by to find a home downtown.
According to Columbia Planning and Development’s Metro 2020 guide, which outlines the future growth of the city, downtown will remain focused on being a pedestrian area.
The guide says new and redeveloped buildings should be flush to the property line to maintain this pedestrian nature.
The guide also discourages surface parking lots off the street other than parking garages to get maximum land use downtown and says any existing lots should be gradually eliminated.
City Manager Ray Beck said the increase in chains is a sign Columbia’s economy is thriving and doesn’t see chains engulfing the city.
“If we let downtown get dilapidated, it may not survive shopping centers,” Beck said.
Beck said he has pictures of cities where the downtown went into decay.
“There was no growth,” he said. “The buildings downtown were boarded up.”
Ann Sexauer has lived in Columbia since 1972 and remembers how the city used to be. She recalls pastureland that used to run along the I-70 Business Loop where countless chains stand now.
“When I moved here, I liked the smaller-town atmosphere,” said Sexauer, 51.
Columbia is a growing community and is moving away from that small-town atmosphere, but groups such as the Special Business District and Columbia Locally Owned Retail and Services are taking measures to give downtown that quaint charm national chains can’t provide.
“I don’t know how the franchises will affect downtown,” said Lisa Bartlett, owner of The Vintage Shop and co-chair woman of the local business alliance. “The more we make people aware, the more we can guarantee independent businesses will survive.”
Lockhart said she thinks growth is good for Columbia and isn’t against chains, but she doesn’t see anything wrong with limiting development to an extent.
“We’re preserving the way of life,” she said. “We don’t have to allow development just because they wave money in our faces.”