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MDA, MSU will try to revive ‘tired’ stripcenters

A retail trend that started right after the end of World War II has become a modern problem, and the Mississippi Development Authority is starting the process of finding a solution.

Stripcenters, retail clusters that could feature everything from supermarkets to department stores, were one of the most visible products of the post-war U.S. economic development boom.

Often situated on the outskirts of downtown areas, they replaced the more traditional one-stop shopping areas that had flourished before the proliferation of the automobile.

With small and mid-size communities now diverting their retail opportunities back to the downtown areas, the worm has turned. The downtowns stripcenters stripped vacant 70 years ago are returning the favor. Empty stripcenters often quickly become blighted. The “Tired Stripcenter Program,” a partnership between the MDA and the Carl Small Business Center at Mississippi State’s College of Architecture, Art and Design, is designed to revitalize them.

“We’ve got a great Main Street program here in Mississippi,” MDA interim executive director Leland Speed said. “You go around and you start looking at all these towns, and they’re starting to get their act together with their downtowns. But to get there, you have to leave the highway and drive past a bunch of old closed department stores or Sunflowers or Jitney Jungles or something like that. They’re depressing. They’re just downright ugly. Every dang town is cursed with these things.”

Speed himself was in on the development of a stripcenter in Jackson, in the Fondren area where a hardware store and a whole foods store now sit. “So I’m guilty,” he said.

The biggest problem with stripcenters, Speed said, is their average shelf life is only between 15 and 20 years, meaning the ones built long after the post-war era have outlived their usefulness.

“The retailing universe changes,” he said. “The store isn’t the right size or the chain gets killed by competition, or something. We can’t just sit here and be victims. We have to develop an active response.”

Federal government policy has done its part to contribute to the explosion of stripcenters and the eyesore they become when they’re empty, said John Poros, director of the Carl Small Business Center. Readily available loans from the Federal Housing Administration and the Interstate Highway Act of the mid-1950s made the box-shaped stripcenters concrete gold mines. That all changed when their tax depreciation method was lowered to seven years, down from 40.

“With that, it doesn’t make sense to build something that’s long-lasting and you take care of. It makes sense to build something cheap,” Poros said.

Speed and Poros agree that pumping life back into the outdated stripcenters will require plans of action as varied as the tenants they once housed.

“You have to take an overall approach,” Poros said. “Maybe there are places to redevelop the strip to become a different program. You might get multi-family housing. You might begin to think about using parts of the strip for civic purposes or even parks and other (venues for) recreational activities. People are looking for things like that more and more when they go out to shop. All these lifestyle centers are doing very well because they understand that. Figuring out how to bring that sort of sensibility to the commercial strip is important.”

Connecting the revamped stripcenter’s new tenants to one another – as opposed to their entrances being exclusively around the edges – will have to be a common theme. “That can become a way to revitalize aesthetics, which is so important to the retail environment,” said Poros, who added that no specific communities have been targeted yet for the program.

“There are a lot of different tools, and every different place is different. It’s clear that people in their preferences are going more toward these places where they can find everything in one place, which really goes back to the old town centers where you can go one place and find everything that they need and also have a pleasant experience there. If you can build it into people’s daily lives, that’s a pretty powerful thing.”

Details of a seminar the MDA and the Carl Small Business Center hope to conduct this fall are being finalized.

 “We’re still working on what exactly we’re going to do,” Poros said. “There will certainly be a kickoff meeting about this, but we’re still trying to figure out when and where.”

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