Support Marin's Downtowns

With the gluttonous serving of gloom delivered by most media these days, fear and frustration levels are high. As I wandered through the county the past few days, a constant thought was how fortunate we are to have the variety of shops, cafes and services located in our numerous, for lack of a better term, “downtowns.”

Marin is made up of a dozen or so individual cities and towns dispersed within its 520 square miles—from Sausalito to Novato, Tiburon to Tomales. The unique character of each of these downtown areas helps make Marin special. During these economically challenging times, it’s more important than ever to support the merchants whose businesses contribute so much to our quality of life.

Empty storefronts are becoming more and more common. “It’s not good,” says a somber Peggy Curran, town manager of Tiburon. “Our downtown has seven vacancies, and DeLano’s Market on Tiburon Boulevard closed last Saturday.” When a store closes, a city loses more than a local convenience for customers, says Curran. “Last year, DeLano’s sales tax revenues to the city exceeded $30,000—and most of what they sell isn’t taxable.” All told, the Town of Tiburon received more than $550,000 in sales tax revenue in 2008, most of it coming from downtown merchants.

“It’s not just the loss of income that worries me,” Curran says, “Downtown is where people meet and interact—it’s the heart of our community.”

Doug Canepa, co-owner with his brother, David, of Mill Valley Market, now in its 80th year of business, is also concerned. “We know times have changed dramatically,” he says, referring to the competition his market faces in the county from Costco, Safeway, BevMo and Whole Foods, “but I have to ask: is price everything?” Canepa then answers his own question: “I remember my granddad extending credit to people in town who’d lost jobs. I saw my dad open the store after hours when someone needed a quart of milk, and we still provide display space for locally grown produce, including organic vegetables from the Canepa family farm in Glen Ellen.” And, Canepa adds emphatically, “our prices are very competitive.”

Similar to many other Marin independent merchants, Mill Valley Market supports and maintains a program called “Shop & Give.” Customers select a favorite Marin nonprofit from a list of 80, each with its own four-digit code; then 2 percent of every purchase that customer makes is donated to that charity, be it guide dogs, a homeless shelter or an environmental group. “In 2008, we distributed over $78,000 to the nonprofits our customers designated,” says Canepa with understandable pride. “Last year’s top recipients were Kiddo, Marin Humane Society and the Tam High School Foundation.”

“I’m worried,” says Joanne Webster, director of San Rafael’s Business Improvement District and owner, with her husband, Charles Garfink, of the Double Rainbow Ice Cream Store on Fourth Street. “Several local tenants are barely holding on.” Webster, a mom to two school-age daughters, declares: “When you’re the ‘little guy,’ you have to bend over backwards to make sure each customer is happy.” As for her shop’s secret to success (Double Rainbow is in its 20th year of profitability), Webster says, “for one thing, we try to learn every customer’s name before they’ve visited us three times.”

Local small businesses, says Marty Murphy, owner of M Clothing, a boutique on Old Corte Madera Square, give Marin a “sense of close-knit community that brings us world-class foods, products and services.” Murphy is concerned that many such neighborhood businesses will fail in an economic downturn: “Are we just going to let our communities fall apart?” she says. “If they’ll just give us a chance to compete—not only for price, but for quality and service—most Marin residents will be surprised with all that a ‘downtown merchant’ has to offer.”

It’s true we’re living in economically challenging times and Marin County is not immune. One constructive and positive action we can take is to support our downtown merchants. Remember, we’re all in this thing together. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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