“We've had a couple contacts with some chains for grocery stores. We'd like to see a Subway or Taco Bell or John's come in to town. We are working on eateries and commercial business.”
[Harrisburg alderman Steve Becker, interviewed by Erica Johnson, "Small Town Sprawl," KELOLand.com, 2009.10.05]
It makes me cringe every time a small town expresses the myopic idea that they'll really have made it when they land some chain store or fast food joint that will make them look just like everyone else. Such statements ring of that common small-town inferiority complex. It's as if nothing we make here is good enough; we must seek the validation of outside corporations. We're just second-raters; we need someone else to study our market and make our sandwiches. (That's exactly what McDonalds wants you to think.)
I can only hope that the Harrisburg city council and its economic developers are spending at least as much time encouraging local folks to start their own businesses as they are extending invitations (and incentives?) to big national chains. Harrisburg in particular is in an enviable position. They aren't looking for some miracle retailer or factory to save a dying small-town economy. Harrisburg is going to grow. Thousands of Sioux Falls people are going to come build houses and at least sleep there. Their school district may double and double again. Growth is guaranteed.
Harrisburg thus doesn't have to stick with the tried and true model of familiar chains to establish itself. Harrisburg is fertile ground for local entrepreneurs to establish their own diners and shops now and ride the wave of inevitable growth long-term profitability. Forget Subway: start a unique local place, a gathering place that could be to Harrisburg what Nick's is to Brookings (the Harrisburger, anyone?). Don't let the mass market define you: start local businesses that define Harrisburg as someplace unique.
I like Potato Olés as much as the next guy (though I prefer the Norwegian pronunciation, thank you), but I've got to tell you: Taco John's is not the sign that you've made it as a community.