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I was recently in the downtown of a major American city on a major American holiday the day after the city’s biggest annual event. Thousands of people were walking around downtown on a warm, breezy day. And nearly every attraction for visitors was closed.
The city was Indianapolis, the holiday was Memorial Day and the event was the Indianapolis 500. Now, I’ve spent enough time in Central Indiana around Memorial Day to know that many things are closed on Monday of the long weekend. Indiana, after all, is a state that still enforces blue laws. But that didn’t make the situation any less frustrating last month, and it got me thinking once more about what makes for a vibrant community. One of those things is this: Retail businesses, museums, tourist attractions and other enterprises that rely heavily on foot traffic must be open when it’s convenient for customers.
Look at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding. After being closed Mondays and Tuesday during the winter, the largest museum in Redding went to a seven-day-a-week schedule in late April. Yes, Turtle Bay was open on Memorial Day Monday. Good for them, and good for Redding.
But back to Indianapolis. After many years of neglect, downtown Indy has been on the rebound for … well, for quite a while. I’m not sure it’s a great place to live (if there’s a grocery store, I didn’t see it), but there’s a lot for visitors to like: a “canal walk” lined with city parks, public art, gathering places and outdoor cafes; a state park, zoo and bike paths along the White River; the state Capitol; art and history museums; the NCAA’s Hall of Champions; a basketball arena, an indoor football stadium and a minor league baseball park; interesting architecture and landscaping; high-rise hotels and a wide variety of restaurants and watering holes.
But on Memorial Day, the whole place felt like it was begrudgingly in operation. Every museum that I encountered was closed. Some eateries that appeared to be breakfast and lunch places were shuttered. The very handsome limestone Capitol building was not open for tours. The Indiana Repertory Theatre, across the street from my hotel, appeared to have taken a summer vacation.
Mind you, this was the day after the Indianapolis 500, an event that attracts a crowd of at least 300,000 people. Many of those race fans come from outside the area. Although the race is on Sunday, experienced fans often delay flights home until Monday night or Tuesday, because rain sometimes postpones the race for a day. If the race runs as scheduled, as it did this year, there are thousands upon thousands of tourists in town looking for something to do on Monday of the long weekend.
Recently, a writer for the Indianapolis Star wrote a piece comparing his town pretty favorably with Portland, Oregon. It’s a well-considered column, but, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time in both cities, I consider the comparison ludicrous. Portland absolutely bustles with life day and night, and I can’t remember ever getting turned away from a Portland attraction because it was locked up when it should be open.
I should also mention that downtown Portland functions primarily for the convenience of pedestrians and cyclists, and that bus, light rail and streetcar service is frequent, even on Sunday and holidays. Downtown Indy, meanwhile, has long blocks and wide streets that make walking feel like a chore. Indy has no light rail or streetcars, and during almost 48 hours in downtown, I didn’t see even one public bus – which only compounded the closed-for-business atmosphere.
Downtown Redding is miniscule compared with downtown Portland or Indy, but the principles are the same for any place that seeks to be the center of a community. If you have a gallery or museum, stay open on weekends and some evenings. If you have a restaurant, don’t end the week on Saturday. If you have a retail store, recognize the times that are most convenient for your customers to shop. If there’s a free concert, a parade, a car show or other event in the neighborhood, welcome the crowds with open arms and open doors.
John Truitt, executive director of Viva Downtown, told me the other day that he thinks downtown Redding businesses do a good job of adjusting to MarketFest, an event that attracts 2,000 to 3,000 people, most of whom would not otherwise be in downtown on a Thursday evening. For bars and restaurants, MarketFest helps create a three-day weekend, he said.
I agree to a point. When MarketFest was getting started during the 1990s, it seemed as if all of downtown were closed except for the event itself. That’s no longer true, partly because downtown has more eateries, nightclubs and bars than it did 10 to 15 years ago. We should be grateful for Viva Downtown’s promotion, and for the business owners and property owners who have invested in the district. But it still feels like there are quite a few closed doors on MarketFest Thursdays.
I’m not calling out anyone here. I’ll simply offer the contrast of Portland and Indianapolis. One downtown is a thriving and seemingly open-to-everyone center of the community. The other downtown appears to want visitors with time on their hands and money in the pockets to go away.
Paul Shigley is a freelance journalist based in Western Shasta County, CA, and is sure there’s a pint with his name on it in Portland. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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