Reno renaissance relapse

I am sitting in the light-filled dining room, picking mushrooms out of my magnificent roasted-vegetable sandwich. The waitress (whose name I never learned) says, “Oh, I didn’t know you didn’t like mushrooms! We’ll remember next time, won’t we, Tom?” The restaurant owner smiles—oh yeah sure, we’ll remember—but I believe them. I’m a regular, and they remember other things—my favorite beer, for example.

But there won’t be a next time. Morandi’s Record Street Café closed its doors—“Sorry, the Economy Sucks” note stuck to the door. I’m sad. It was a great place to meet after class, and the Morandis served up great food and a fabulous vibe. Morandi’s joins a growing list of local places leveled by the recession just in the last month: Dreamer’s, Sasha’s, La Bussola. After almost a decade of revival fueled by unique local businesses taking up residence around downtown, Reno is rapidly returning to the gutted storefronts that plagued the downtown area throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

“It’s the casinos,” grumbled one storekeeper. “They want to see us fail, to bring in national chain stores in our place.” I don’t know if this is true. It’s easy to scapegoat the casinos after decades of their dominating urban development, and it seems like tough economic times are a more powerful driver.

Whatever the cause, this epidemic of local business closures is a tragedy on multiple fronts. Our local businesses help to create a sense of community and unique identity in our downtown area, something that national chains (if they come) can’t replicate or replace. But as someone who does a lot of business over a cup of coffee, I notice that the loss of places like Dreamer’s and Record Street also means fewer public spaces where people can gather to brainstorm new ideas or hatch projects. These quasi-public spaces foster a dynamic, creative engagement that characterizes successful downtown renaissances from Portland, Ore., to Brooklyn, N.Y., acting as anchors and springboards for other ventures—a positive feedback loop. Their loss creates the opposite, downward spiral, replacing the creative buzz with empty spaces and lowering property values.

Is there something we can do as a community to help stanch the hemorrhage? Should we even try? There is the argument that cyclical downturns are normal events in capitalist economies, opportunities for “creative destruction,” where the loss of the old creates space for the new and innovative to come forward. There is some truth to this argument. But what if it’s the new and innovative that gets crushed while the stodgy and old consolidates and gets bigger, more entrenched?

One of the interesting features of a Google search is that sometimes, it can reveal the cultural differences among countries and communities. My search on the topic of “saving local businesses during recession” turned up several pages of results from the United Kingdom, where both the central government and local “Councils” and “Town Halls” have devised innovative polices specifically designed to help keep local businesses from closing down during the recession. The only United States results focused on providing individual business owners with the information to save themselves. That Americans might be more focused on self-help and self-reliance than Brits is not so surprising in and of itself. But are there really no American communities where the fate of local business in the face of recession isn’t a matter of policy discussion and concern?

I recently learned that small businesses provide far and away the majority of jobs and tax dollars across the country and in Nevada. So if we are to find a way out of recession, perhaps we should pay attention to the little guys first.