I'm frequently amazed when I hear or read comments complaining that a business has located or relocated on North Main Street.
"The traffic on North Main is already terrible," they complain. "Why can't they go to Madison Street, to one of the lots or empty buildings out there?"
Well, think about this for a second. If you're a business owner, and if your business depends at all on visibility or on impulse traffic ("Where should we go for lunch?"), it's sort of obvious that you would, all things being equal, want to locate on the busiest street in town. Those cars passing by are all potential customers. No, it doesn't make things convenient for the rest of us as drivers, but it makes perfect sense from the business owner's perspective.
Naturally, there are other factors as well. If property values on the high-traffic street get to be over-inflated, for example, businesses may have to consider a location somewhere else. Or if employment patterns change -- the factory on one side of town hires people, the factory on the other side of town lays people off -- traffic patterns may change as well, shaking things up and causing businesses to rethink their site selection process. The new bypass opening later this summer may divert some truck traffic from the center of town, and who knows what things will be like then?
But no one should be shocked that a retailer or restaurant wants to locate on a busy street. That should be, well, obvious.
In some cases, national chains do very detailed traffic studies and won't even consider a location unless state traffic maps show that X number of cars pass there each day.
It may be apocryphal, but the story has gone around for years that one of the major fast food chains (the one my youngest niece calls "the yummy M" for the big yellow arches out front) had a very precise and successful formula for deciding where to put its restaurants during a time when it was expanding rapidly. They spent a lot of money on various studies and pored over each new location. Supposedly, a competing fast food chain developed its own, much cheaper methodology: look for the big yellow M and buy the closest reasonably-priced site.
Local government, of course, can have some impact on where businesses locate through zoning regulation. But in the current economic climate, I would think that city government (which is funded by sales tax revenue) would be grateful for new business and would be unlikely to meddle too much with what is a successful commercial district out of fear that it would discourage development altogether.
The most zoning or site plan regulations can do is to tell businesses where they can't locate. No one can force a business to locate some place it doesn't want to. Many businesses, given the choice between a bad location and no location at all, would take the latter -- and just open in some other city.
Busy traffic is a nuisance and can be a safety hazard. The city and the state have long-range plans for widening North Main Street, and perhaps that will help the situation. But in a bad economy, too much traffic might be preferable to no traffic at all.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.