Op-Ed: Open Letter to Easton Town Council: Role of Retail by Dan Watson

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Retailing in America today is in more disarray and turmoil than at any time in my 72 years, with extraordinary churn and instability. I spent 40 years in commercial real estate and finance, including a 15-year stint as a Director of Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Investment Trust that owned and operated the Giant shopping center on Elliott Road. With this perspective, I am very worried about this contradiction: the absolute permanence of land use decisions (especially new development on the edges), versus the completely transitory nature of retail business today.

It used to be that a big name, in retailing especially, meant something steady and reliable. No more. Never have retailers and retailing formats come and gone so quickly. (See, for example, 6 links below.)

Towns like Easton are presented with the retailing idea du jour, sure to become the next big thing. Yours is a heavy responsibility: to keep the fabric of our community in tact in a generational sense, and not just to follow the pied piper of development trends, which were never so capricious as they are today in the retail sector.

A newly arrived retailer with a name and an idea is hardly bedrock. A “deal” with a 10 or 20 year lease sounds like something, but its an eye-blink compared to the permanent impact the resulting land use decision will have on the community, from the details of traffic patterns to the broadest sense of character of Easton and Talbot County. And sudden closures driven by market-side corporate-level tumult rather than specific lease term are all too common. This affects not just small stores like Radio Shack and Chico’s; recent headlines regarding store closings also involve Kohl’s, Target, Staples, and others—Penny’s not to be overlooked.

Adaptive re-use and redevelopment of sites already built upon will be the next strategic challenge for the Town of Easton–that’s where the Council should turn its attention, before, not after, a veritable crisis.

The revolutionary tumult in today’s retail world (mostly driven by technology) means the benefits of any new scheme may be especially transitory, while the community impact is as permanent as ever. I urge that you not further change the Waterside Village PUD, which reflects community-driven land use principles, just to accommodate a particular retailer as it experiments with yet another retail idea of the moment.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Willard T Engelskirchen says:

    Sometimes the wisest decision is to pause and wait for the dust to settle. When we consider retail development, this might be especially true.

  2. Rem SIMPSON says:

    I agree with Dan’s well written take on the subject.

  3. Hugh Beebe says:

    Dan’s piece is a clear and well informed statement of a problem right at the center of the Eastern Shore’s future.
    His effort to document access to current information about big box retailing in contrast to the leveraged benefits of local small shops is wonderful.
    Thanks.

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