We waited in a drizzle on an otherwise pleasant Saturday morning for him to appear. The throng of people was excited to catch a glimpse of him; among the crowd were my parents and me, perched on my father's shoulders.

Mel Olson (1).jpg
Mel Olson

We waited in a drizzle on an otherwise pleasant Saturday morning for him to appear. The throng of people was excited to catch a glimpse of him; among the crowd were my parents and me, perched on my father's shoulders.

The year was 1964 and the event was the opening of a new retail concept in shopping - the strip mall. That innovation would decimate Main Streets across America but that was in the future, for now he was arriving.

He came atop a stagecoach, dressed in matching powder blue pants and shirt, black gun belt, twin pearl handled six guns, black boots, black gloves, red kerchief tied around his throat, a pearl white hat and, of course, a black mask on his face. The Lone Ranger had come to open the Van Arsdel's outdoor shopping mall.

My hero shook my hand and called me "Pardner." When I asked where Tonto (his Native American friend), Silver and Scout (their horses) were, he said "Back at camp," and then he was on to the next child.

I've met other television personalities, politicians and even presidents in person since then, but nothing compares to meeting Clayton Moore, The Lone Ranger.


Apparently nothing quite compared to the strip mall, either, and soon they were everywhere, a marketing concept on the rise while Main Streets were on the decline. Years later Van Arsdel's moved with the times and became an enclosed indoor mall.

Another challenge for Main Street has been catalog shopping. Mail order catalogues have existed since 1845 when Tiffany's sent out the first one. Mail order was revolutionized, although we didn't know it yet, with the advent of Amazon and Internet shopping in general circa 1995. Presently, brick and mortar retail is in crisis like never before and the question is, what can be done about it?

Leaving to one side the tired tropes of tax holidays and sales promotions, one answer is to find a different avenue of commerce for brick and mortar buildings. For example, the empty Kmart building will never be a department or box store again, too many have already closed and we're too close to Sioux Falls to attract a different regional player. However, it could easily be used as a warehouse or shipping facility for a current business. It has easy access to the interstate and we have an airport that could accommodate airfreight shipments.

Another answer is to nurture new, niche businesses that are either unique or that offer experiences that are not easily or fully replicated online. The city now owns the old Northwestern Energy building on Main Street. We could duplicate a practice that exists in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. They have a "pop-up" program where new businesses are given a retail space for 90-120 days to try out their entrepreneurial idea without the fixed costs of a permanent location.

The new business must actively advertise their enterprise, maintain regular hours, keep the building and grounds clean, have goods or services to sell and do so to the buying public. The idea is then the new business would be "established," move out of the pop-up space after the trial period and into a permanent location, hopefully also on Main Street. The old Northwestern Energy building is perfect for such an experiment and the location next to the Corn Palace should help to successfully showcase a new initiative to the public.

The Lone Ranger used only silver bullets. He did so to show that life was precious. The phrase "silver bullet" has come to mean a simple or elegant solution that solves a sticky problem in one fell swoop.

There is no silver bullet for brick and mortar retail, but like silver, those businesses are precious, providing consumer choice, employment, support for charitable causes, tax dollars, full buildings and a vibrant, healthy community.

Let's all put on our thinking caps and pull up our bootstraps; it's our town after all.

Related Topics: RETAIL
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