Stillwater: The Impractical City

My wife and I recently spent an afternoon in Stillwater, MN. We had fun walking up and down Main Street. Stillwater has the kind of historic Main Street that makes people want to get out of their cars and walk around. It’s got an old-timey feel to it, there are interesting stores everywhere, coffee shops, diners, ice cream shops, even a public library. It’s the kind of Main Streets that urban planners are always trying to emulate. The kind of main street every small town wishes they had.

Yep, but the problem with cities like Stillwater is that their Main Streets only continue to survive because they’ve created a critical mass of niche shops that you can’t find anywhere else. For example, a high-end cooking store, a store selling $2000 cuckoo clocks and $50 christmas ornaments, a posh scrapbooking store, and several high end antique stores. It’s a great place to visit, but if you lived there, these stores wouldn’t be very useful. You’d still have to venture to the stripmalls on the outskirts of Stillwater to complete the bulk of your daily tasks.

Visiting Stillwater reinforced how small-town main streets can’t compete with strip malls in our current marketplace. Average main streets, with average stores, will always lose out to strip malls. The successful main streets like Stillwater (Park City, UT comes to mind) are only successful because they cater to a specific niche market, generally selling high-end goods where buyers aren’t searching for the lowest-cost option.

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