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Downtown commerce and the future

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On a Sunday evening in July, we are looking south on Albany's Broadalbin Street, and a pleasant view it is. The horizontal lines of stately buildings all point to the Linn County Courthouse four blocks away. And it looks like the prosperous center of a small American town. What we cannot see are trends that may threaten to make the image look deceiving, like Potemkin's villages.

For more than a dozen years, Albany has worked to promote -- and spent money on -- revitalizing the central part of the city, especially the old commercial downtown. Giving assistance to the restoration of the old bank building on the left as a fine restaurant was part of that effort, as was the reconstruction of the streetscape itself. But elsewhere on this street and on others nearby, storefronts yawn empty with big signs: For rent or lease.

Just now, the Central Albany Revitalization Area (CARA) is considering a request to provide scholarships of $2,000 each to downtown business people who enroll in a business development program at Linn-Benton Community College. The hope is that this will result in more stores and other small enterprises starting up and lasting a good long time.

I wonder, though, whether the trends of our times have made such efforts futile. Unless I'm mistaken, the universal trend is to conduct commerce online. A growing share of the public seems to have no time to go to a shop to look for merchandise and buy it on the spot. It seems much easier to go online, consider unlimited choices, find the right item and wait a day or two for UPS to bring it to the door.

In the photo here, you may see the trend if you visit the bank building on the right. When it was still the First National Bank, many years ago, it was full of employees. Walk in there now and the few remaining staffers seem to rattle around in all that space. Wells Fargo and all other big banks do all they can to push their customers to make transactions online. Pretty soon, why have branches at all?

A men's wear store will open here, for "natty dressers."

A men's wear store will open here, for "natty dressers."

Under the circumstances, you have to admire the few brave souls determined to swim against the stream, such as Oscar and Tamalynne Hult. Last spring they were approved for a $10,000 CARA grant to help them remodel a storefront in the Masonic Temple on West First Avenue and open, come September, "The Natty Dresser," a traditional men's wear store complete with a shoe-shine stand.

The photo of Broadalbin was taken on a Sunday when just about everything was closed. So there was no risk to life or limb in calmly standing in the middle of First Avenue to snap photos. What I worry about is that the lack of traffic may one day last all week and that technology and changing public habits may thwart all the efforts to revive commercial life downtown. I hope I'm wrong about this. If not, then like the adviser of Russia's Catherine the Second, we will have set up pleasant facades mostly for show. (hh)

UPDATE: On July 17, the CARA advisory board voted 6-4 against the request to fund scholarships for business people attending a nine-month course at the Small Business Development Center at Linn-Benton Community College. But the opponents implied they would support the request if it was revised to ask for loans instead of $2,100 grants per person, if it was presented to the city council, and if all Albany business people were made eligible rather than just those inside the urban renewal district. (hh)

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