How will we get them to come? - Marketing By Gabby
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How will we get them to come?

How will we get them to come?

I’ve only been a Hickman County resident for 7 months, but the impact of losing Breece’s Cafe isn’t lost on me. 

After 81 years serving decadent desserts and warm meals to this community, Breece’s Cafe closed its doors Sunday evening for the final time. This news comes just a few weeks after the restaurant announced the installation of a bar. They hoped selling alcohol might help them drum up more business. It was a Hail Mary in a long and familiar game of How to Get a Customer Downtown, played voraciously in small towns across the country. 

Still, the people didn’t come. 

My first visit to Breece’s was after the state minimized COVID-19 restrictions placed on restaurants (for the first time). Manager Sharon Rogers organized a buffet of Louisiana cuisine for a bayou-themed Friday evening. 

My boyfriend played a show that night. Three elderly sisters, and some of the more frequent of Breece’s guests, swooned as he sang old Hank Williams songs. 

“Mind if I take him home?” one of the women asked with a cheeky smile. 

We laughed. 

Still, the people didn’t come. 

Maxine’s Sweet Shop owner Ruby King says she kept her business downtown for as long as she could… a year. 

But, just before COVID-19 hit, she ended her lease on the corner building space across from Reliant Bank. 

“It doesn’t have the foot traffic,” she said of the location. 

She tried everything. A 1980s throwback event for the teenagers and young adults. A limited release of phosphate sodas for the baby boomers. 

Still, the people didn’t come. 

Sales made dipped below rent owed, so something had to change. She moved her business online and has her mind set on establishing a brick-and-mortar location in Fairview or Dickson.  

Since the fingertips of coronavirus first tapped Hickman County in March, 9 businesses licenses have expired according to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office. Three in Centerville and Bon Aqua, two in Nunnelly, and one in Lyles. 

Who’s to blame? COVID-19 or disinterested residents? It’s hard to say. 

King can’t imagine if she still had the looming threat of rent hanging over her head right now. 

If it was a pain to entice people downtown before the pandemic, it’s a third-degree burn to extract a transaction from locals amid extreme customer awareness driven by the pandemic. 

One month ago, ABC News reported that 16,000 restaurants – approximately 107 per day – had closed in the U.S. alone because of the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

Whether we can prove the pandemic restricted foot traffic at the Centerville Square this year or not, one truth is clear. 

If we want to feel more connected to our government, if we want to feel more connected to our physical (not just digital) communities, if we want to feel more connected to the products we buy… then we need to support our city centers. 

If we want more accountability at the local level… then we need to encourage measures that help businesses thrive. The more businesses there are to attract people downtown, the greater oversight city-congregating local representatives are subject to. 

Perhaps we should look in East Hickman County, develop a cohesive city center on that side of the county. We could encourage commissioners to consider having meetings on an alternating schedule: one month in Centerville, another in Bon Aqua or Lyles. Facetime with and access to representatives are vital tenets of a functioning democracy. 

But we can’t continue blaming proximity on Centerville’s lack of foot traffic. Centerville may be out of the way from residents living on the east side – another reason to focus on business and civic development on that end – but it is within a reasonable driving distance of the Natchez Trace and a main feature off Highway 100. 

Perhaps the city and county government can work with a third-party organization to create a campaign educating business owners and developers about the funding opportunities with a downtown establishment. 

Historic renovation and preservation grants are commonplace, and most downtown buildings are eligible for them. Main Street groups across the country are supplied with federal government-backed dollars to spend on the square. Are we effectively communicating that message? 

In places like Texas and Oklahoma, city officials are instituting programs that provide residents with matching funds for every gift card they purchase from a local business. It’s one of many measures states, counties, and towns have implemented to encourage people to support local businesses. 

But as we’ve already discussed, one-off efforts and grand gestures aren’t going to solve the roadblocks to success of our small businesses in Hickman County. And whatever we do, the government should operate as nothing more than a garden trellis, merely creating an environment for downtown businesses to grow, but not controlling how it achieves that growth. 

King says the longevity of a business on the square is a consistent customer base. 

Will this goal require actions including dismantling excessive regulations or rezoning city land to permit faster and more intentional growth? That’s a task for our city and county leaders. 

As for us, working and paying citizens of this fine county, we need to change our routines and find more ways to shop local and to shop downtown. 

“We had a great fan base,” King said. “If each one of our followers on social media, if they came in and spent $5 with us, that would have kept us open.” 

There’s never been a better time to move beyond our token support for small business and take another look at how we can be keeping our money in our communities and concentrated in our once-thriving city centers. 

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