Kent Downtown: A Tale of Two Cities
I was in a meeting a few weeks ago where we were talking about downtown Kent and retail development. One of the merchants from downtown made a comment that stuck with me as being a really insightful observation characterizing our downtown. She said our downtown is a “tale of two cities” — with an active and financially successful night time business sector and a declining, apparently struggling day time retail sector.
I liked the merchant’s observation so much that I went back and looked up what is sure to be one of the most famous quotes from that same Tale:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
After reading the quote, the relevance to Kent’s downtown resonated even more. That was us, “the best of times and the worst of times” at the same time. Since my arrival in Kent I have been a bit confounded by this polarity (although in hindsight I’ve learned that Kent is proudly all about polarity but that’s another story altogether).
Our downtown is an enigma. I’ve seen dead downtowns and dead it is definitely not. But I’ve also seen vibrant downtowns buzzing with activity all day long and a beehive it is also not (at least in the hours that I tend to be awake). On the one hand I’ve had people speak in desperate tones hailing the death of Kent’s downtown retail. Yet, on the other hand people have grabbed my lapels shaking me and urging me to make more parking downtown — they claim that they can never find an open spot. Rarely does a dead downtown have such parking problems and rarely does a downtown evoke such extreme opposite perspectives.
I used to wonder if we were just a bit of a schitzophrenic community until I begun to draw similar conclusions from my own observations. So either I’m as schitzophrenic as everyone else (which is certainly a possibility) or else there’s something unusual — I prefer “unconventional” — about our downtown. My logical right brain wants to see order in the chaos so I’ve struggled to make sense of this for some time. I watched stores move out and bars move in, yet the pattern wasn’t clear to me. It wasn’t until this merchant christened Kent as a Tale of Two Cities did I realize that I had been looking too close to see the pattern that connected these seemingly random dots.
The truth was much simpler than I was making the problem and it took a passing remark by a merchant to turn the lightbulb on for me — Indeed, Kent’s night time businesses still rock after all these years but the once vibrant day time retail has lost ground. Now that shouldn’t come as a surprise since downtown retail all over the country first took a hit when the malling of American retail began a couple of decades ago and then Sam Walton came along and with a roundhouse right hook hit downtowns square on the jaw with the invasion of his army of Walmart superstores.
We can complain about it — and many people do, especially about Walmart — but Sam never held a gun to anyone’s head to buy from his stores, they flock to them like moths around a flame. It is what it is no matter how much we wish otherwise.
Face it, consumers are a fickle lot. Novelty rules the day and people always want to be part of the latest fad. The trouble is, Kent doesn’t do the “fad” thing — we’re unconventionally genuine and true to our roots by nature — so we resisted changes and we’re proud of it. We beat the mall idea so bad that old Sam and his Walmart minions didn’t dare to take us on so they stayed outside our borders huddled in the township. Smart folk them Waltons.
But as we won the battles, our downtown was losing the war. Inch by inch it was giving ground to the malls all around us and more recently to the Super K-Mart, Targets and that arch nemesis Wal Mart — all of whom were taking whole chunks out of our downtown’s hide at a time. It was fun to think we could carve out Kent as an enclave honoring the past glory of downtowns, convincing ourselves that we could be immune to the superficiality of strip malls but every dog has its day and the day of conventional retail and commodity products being bought downtown has passed us by.
That is indeed the story of our daytime downtown city but there’s actually a lot of interesting things stirring beneath the surface, even in the daytime. Odds and ends have begun to fill the gaps. Antiques, knick knacks, and other unconventional retail (yes, that includes tatoos) has emerged from the ashes. It’s not your grandfather’s downtown anymore but it is alive and well, it just beats to a different drummer. I’ll admit much of it is still in transition and is still forming a new cluster of activity — but I honestly believe it’s there.
I’ve seen the receipts of the Kent Stage and I can tell you firsthand that it’s blues shows are drawing hundreds of people from other states to little old Kent. I’ve watched people sit in their cars after driving their kids 60 miles to attend music lessons at Woodsy’s each week. And of course, if you stay up passed my bedtime you’ll see the night come alive with the sounds of music and cheer.
So maybe we are a Tale of Two Cities but it is an exciting time to watch Kent remake itself and stay current in a unmistably Kent way. I can’t wait to see what comes next.