The local angle

I live in the North Carolina Piedmont Triad, a thriving little 12-county market that includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point. Like most similar markets, there’s a keen interest in growth – for obvious reasons. And I’m fine with that – we’re all in favor of improved economic and cultural opportunities.

But sometimes I wonder what kind of pictures local leaders and developers have in their heads when they imagine how they’d like their city to be. The Triad Business Journal has a running poll inviting reader input on a rotating series of issues facing the market, and today’s question really jumped out at me:

What’s missing in the world of Triad retail?
In the past five years, the Triad has seen a retail explosion. Where previously you couldn’t find a PF Chang’s and you had to drive at least across town for a cup of Starbuck’s, you now have a much broader choice of coffee and dining options. But what’s still missing?

  • Bass Pro Shops
  • The Cheesecake Factory
  • Ikea
  • Nordstrom
  • Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Trader Joe’s
  • Other
  • Nothing. We already have enough retail options.

Results.

I voted for “other.” And I appended this comment, which I think is important for every city to think about:

What’s missing is local culture. This poll is wonderful if the assumption is that we want to be like every other homogenous suburban beltway exit in America. What you need to be asking is how we can differentiate ourselves.

I mean, I’m not dumb. I get that we’ve reached the unfortunate point in America where the presence of certain chain logos is taken as validation. If your fair city doesn’t even rate a Chili’s, well, how seriously should people take you?

I’ve been to some fantastic cities in my life. And while I dig Cheesecake Factory as much as the next guy (I love their Shepherd’s Pie), places are memorable because of how they’re different, not how they’re alike. You can’t go to a Wynkoop Brewing anywhere but Denver. I’m told they’re branching out a bit, but there’s nothing anywhere quite like a milk stout at John Harvard’s in Cambridge. I’ll always remember Santa Fe for a place called the Blue Corn Cafe (which may or may not still be there) and a green chili stew dish that was unlike anything I’d ever had before or have had since.

You can go to a Cheesecake Factory in a lot of towns, but the Triad is the only place in the nation where you can get by-god real barbecue. Stamey’s in Greensboro, Pig Pickin’s and Little Richard’s and Mr. Barbecue in Winston, and a host of places down the road in Lexington that are well worth the 20-minute drive. Best stuff in the world.

I guess it’s as American as apple pie to want to keep up with the Joneses, and legendary industries have been bulit on our desire to be individuals just like everybody else. But those charged with elevating the stature of smaller and mid-sized cities need to remember that they’re in the branding business, and nobody ever became special by setting out to be just like everybody else.

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