Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's a Start for the Main Street Gang

Lehi Utah is my home on purpose. I grew up outside Washington DC in a sprawling suburb, but spent a lot of time in the city and got to know it pretty well. I like cities. They’re fun. I’ve been to most of the big ones in the US (with the sole exception, I think, of Houston), and I like the unique character of each. Except Cleveland, but that’s another story.

But a city isn’t a big mass of people. A city is a very large conglomeration of smaller communities, that all happen to be in close proximity. Nobody knows “Manhattan”, no matter how long he’s lived there. He knows his deli, his bookstore, his side of the street. The ones that love New York the hardest are the ones that know their neighbors the best. Those are the people that build communities. The people I admire most are the ones that start making friends with the locals fifteen minutes after arriving.

Contrary to generally accepted ideas, this kind of community is just as possible - and just as critical - in Manhattan as it is in Lehi. In small towns, it’s easier to get to know the locals because those are the only people there, but smart people, those that are the most fun to be around, get to know the locals wherever local is. Maybe that’s harder when the local coffee shop is Starbucks instead of Beans and Brews, and the local burger joint is Burger King instead of Emmetts, but I wonder.

Most of you know that I am a relentless advocate for local business. I love small business in whatever locale, no matter how small. I have been known to drop a $20 bill on a lemonade stand. When I moved to Lehi about 5 years ago, it was the smallest city I had ever lived in by some hundred thousand people. I loved it immediately. I started shopping at Kohlers instead of Albertsons. I joined the Chamber of Commerce and got an immediate tour of historic Lehi from Carl Mellor, who runs the 120-year-old Lehi Hotel. I ate at Porter’s Place. It felt like home.

But I noticed that that wasn’t universal. Lehi was in the process of tripling in size over an 8-year period, and there was a lot of new housing going up with people in it that used Lehi like a hotel; they slept here and ate room service, but went to work somewhere else and generally took entertainment and meals in other cities. Part of that is Lehi’s fault - there is now a movie theater in town, but there wasn’t until recently, and the number of restaurants is tiny - and part of that is just bad luck, with the main arterial road in town being owned not by the city but by the state of Utah (hence largely unimprovable). The Home Depot in American Fork killed off Peck’s Hardware on Lehi’s State Street, and the WalMart and Lowe’s and Costco seemed poised to do the same to other local businesses, such as they were. I worried that Lehi would fail to maintain its character in the face of this chain-store onslaught. Worse, I feared that Lehi would lose its sense of community, the ties that bind people together with the places they live.

Let me add parenthetically that I love big business as well as small business. I shop at these chain stores, too (though not nearly as often as I used to). I have nothing against WalMart and Lowe’s, Applebee’s and Chili’s. This is not a rant against globalism and multi-national corporations. Far from it. I have, however, something else in mind. Money spent in your local community stays there far more surely than money spent in a chain store. It’s a more efficient delivery vehicle for value. If you want your local city to provide services, your local stores to thrive, and your local housing market to retain (or increase) its value, the best way to do that is to inject your money into the local economy, and you do that much more efficiently at Broadbent’s General Store than at WalMart (see the 3/50 Project for more). It’s not just good for the local business owners; it’s good for you.

So I moved my business to Main Street. I’d have gladly bought a building - almost did, though thank goodness I was denied the loan (the building later collapsed) - but I settled for renting the place at 60 West. That’s the address. 60 West Main. No suite number. No floor number. Heck, there’s only one room in the building, unless you count the bathroom. We all work in the one area, no walls, no cubicles.

Then I wanted to find a group of people that was committed to local business. Not just “yeah, we like it”, but “I stayed awake all night thinking of how to get more people to go to your store”. I wanted people around that were desperate to make a Lehi community. I had Jonathan Heaton and his excellent insurance agency. And Olivia Votaw of Girl With Red Lipstick. And Amy Jo Yates, a longtime friend. And for a long time, they was it.

So we decided to start knocking doors. Since then I’ve met Mark Wilson in the architect’s office next door (he’ll be the Lehi Rotary Club President in about two weeks), and Sebastian moved in one door farther down about a year ago with his sign company. Jonathan and his excellent insurance agency went in with me to also rent the building at 68 West, just next door. I met Bob Trepanier, who’s run Porter’s Place for a generation, and Charlie and Sterling, who put Charlie Boys’ Carolina BBQ in the cottage a couple doors down (get the beans). Then Nathan and Daniela Larsen put Classic Books and Gifts in on the corner, Lehi’s first and only bookstore. Pam Mayfield, one block down, cuts my hair in the Lehi Old Town Barber’s (look for the barber pole; if it’s twirling, she’s in). Fire Chief Dale Ekins (another Rotarian) owns the Pioneer Party and Copy, then there’s the Lehi Bakery (legendary square donuts). There’s Carl at the Lehi Historic Hotel (now the Rockwell Hotel), and down another block is Flowers on Main and the incredible James and Kris Belcher. That’s what we call the sunny side of the street.

On the shady side there’s Dave Lym’s insurance agency, and next door to him Pastor Chuck runs the Timp Baptist Church. There’s the Bridal Shop there that has been in that spot for almost 100 years. To the east, Emmett’s makes the best food in town (as long as you like burgers) and Ethel’s is the ice cream shop (real hard ice cream!). That place can give you heart failure if you don’t watch it. But just today, Allison’s Organics opened Lehi’s first organic market (between the tattoo parlor and the karate studio), so now we have some balance.

There’s something started here on Main Street. There’s a group here now that wants to see Lehi become something better, both what it used to be, and what it always wanted to be but never was. I’m just a Lehi Utah mortgage guy, and just one guy at that. Things aren’t so rosy out there for any of us. The economy is huge and much more powerful than I am. I don’t know how big a difference I can make.

But I’m encouraged by the last few weeks. There are only a few of us. But it’s a start. And we believe.

P.S. If I forgot you, you’ll have to remind me in the comments. I tried to get everyone, but again, I’m just a guy. And if you didn’t know that the Main Street Gang existed, if you didn’t know that anyone was organizing this kind of “Shop Lehi First” effort (kudos to Local First Utah as well for their work in this area), well, now you know. Join us (chris@lehilender.com, or tweet me @chrisjoneslehi).

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