Entrepreneurial Downtowns


By Cliff Melberger

Small to mid-size towns across the country are facing difficulties keeping their business spaces occupied. Big box stores, discounters, franchise restaurants, and large retail chains have, in many places, driven out smaller, local enterprises. That is not the case with Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

Although Lewisburg is surrounded by a plethora of large and small retail malls and has just endured the dislocation caused by the construction of a new mall on the edge of the traditional business district, it has managed to avoid the appearance of a blighted ghost town. There is turnover in the business district to be sure, but new enterprises soon move into any available space created by move outs or failures. Lewisburg is a “two institution town” hosting the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary and Bucknell University. It has an active “Downtown Partnership” program that brings the various business entities in the downtown area together to work on special programs and to build downtown foot traffic.

However, Lewisburg’s resilience and relative success in maintaining a traditional downtown business district depends in large part on its “friendliness” to entrepreneurial operations and locally-generated start-ups. According to statistics made available by the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership, there are 104 commercial properties in the district. Among those spaces, only 11 can be considered to be chain outlets or franchises or owned by an outside, off-site entity.

There are over 93 business operating in the district that are owner-operator organizations or entrepreneurial facilities still owned by the person or family that started them. The success of this small town in maintaining a vital and attractive downtown business district may depend in part on the foot traffic generated by its close proximity to a university campus of approximately 3,000 students and roughly 500 faculty and staff. However, that situation is optimized by the predominance of small, nimble business ventures that can adapt relatively quickly to emerging opportunities or respond to challenges brought about by changes in the surrounding environment.

The situation in downtown Lewisburg is sufficiently attractive to those planning a start-up that any vacant spaces that do appear seem to be quickly snapped up by other entrepreneurs anxious to try their hand at making their way in this vital and interesting business environment.

The situation in Lewisburg may prove to be a useful approach for other small to medium-sized towns that have seen business flee to malls or convert to corporate or chain outlets that may have more difficulty adapting to the microenvironments they encounter in a small town where conditions for business may be more volatile than in larger cities with populations large enough to provide a buffering effect to rapid changes in the business environment.

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