The year is 2005. The place is a town of 25,000 residents about 40 miles from a metropolitan area. Two old men, Elmer and James, reflect on changes in the community as they wait for their breakfast orders at the Main Street Diner.
Elmer: I see by the paper that the Ritchie boys are opening up a new business out on the highway selling their plastic yard art on the Internet.
James: That’s just what we need. More trucks coming and going from town. I thought that when gasoline hit $3 a gallon everybody was gonna quit driving.
Elmer: Lots of folks did cut down on driving, especially when the market dropped out of those SUV’s and nobody could sell them. All you see on the highway now is trucks delivering things to folks. Hard to believe people want pink flamingos in their front yards. We’ve been through that trend twice.
James: We’re so old we’ve been through everything twice.
Elmer: Remember when we were growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s? This town was a lot different then.
James: Yeah. The mill was within walking distance of Main Street. The mill was the only place around that paid a decent wage. Main Street was a bustling place. Remember the Bijou Theater and the original Main Street Diner?
Elmer: Why did we quit having breakfast at the diner?
James: Don’t you remember? The merchants complained so much about the highway traffic coming through downtown that the state put in the bypass in 1970. The diner closed, so we started eating Egg McMuffins out at McDonald’s.
Elmer: Oh, yeah.
James: Then the Wal-Mart store opened and then Richards Realty built that strip center office thing and before you know it everybody was out on the highway. They even built a new post office out there.
Elmer: I think that when the post office moved was when downtown officially died.
James: Maybe so. But the traffic jam around the post office at eight o’clock was so bad that something had to be done. Remember how everybody had to go all at the same time to check their mail. Thank goodness they got e-mail now.
Elmer: You ever used e-mail?
James: Use it every day. I send a note to my granddaughter at college every day. My son, James Junior, sends me pictures once or twice a week from that African village where he started that medical clinic. It’s a new world, Elmer.
Elmer: I think I like the old a lot better.
James: Thanks to all this technology and Internet stuff, lots of folks are going back to the old world.
Elmer: That’s don’t make a bit of sense, old man.
James: Oh really. Well just look around you. Here we are back on Main Street at the diner that’s been reopened, all these little downtown shops are making a killing, the highest priced real estate is in downtown, especially those upstairs apartments, and people are walking around talking to each other again. Downtown is alive again.
Elmer: Are you giving me that quality of life speech again?
James: Well, it’s true. People are living in town again and driving to their jobs out on the bypass where, like the Ritchie boys, they are selling things to the world. Used to, if you had something to sell, you sold it to people in this county. These days, you can sell it to the world on the Internet.
Elmer: And the delivery trucks come pick it up and take it away?
James: Now you’re catching on. They call it “expanding your market.”
Elmer: Let me make sure I got this right. We started out living and working in downtown, then it got too busy so we moved everything outside of downtown, and now we’re moving back to downtown.
James: That’s close.
Elmer: Explain it a little more then.
James: Okay. We started out working and living downtown, then we moved ourselves to the suburbs and left the jobs downtown, then we moved the jobs to the suburbs, but now we’re moving back downtown and leaving the jobs in the suburbs.
Elmer: So we just reversed everything?
James: More or less.
Elmer: And this happened because the delivery trucks don’t have to come downtown and because the Internet lets folks sell to the world?
James: Something like that.
Elmer: You’re a smart fellow, James.
James: Thank you. Anything else?
Elmer: Yeah. Pass the jelly, and tell me if you think there’s a market for hand-made quilts. Martha’s got a sewing group that could turn out five a week.
James: Are you kidding?! They could set up a Web site, have online credit orders, maybe even an e-newsletter on the quilt of the day, and you and I could manage it. That’s a great idea! We could offer next day delivery, and…
Elmer: Hold it, partner. Let’s go over to the courthouse and whittle.
Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.