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Edward C. Armbrecht Jr.: Hutchinson wrong on Town Center development

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- John Hutchinson was a very good mayor, and in his recent op-ed in the Gazette, he was right to praise Brawley Tracy for his many contributions to our city. But, as one who was active in the events in Charleston at the time Hutchinson speaks of, which led to the construction of the Town Center Mall, some of my recollections differ from his.

First: I do not agree that the reason Stone & Thomas (with whom I was associated.) and The Diamond and all the many specialty stores around us prospered was because we "milked the city for years," as Hutchinson contends. For the 1950's through most of the '80s, the vibrancy of the downtown was the envy of many cities. Stone & Thomas, The Diamond, Embee's, Frankenberger's, Schwabe-May, to name a few, were good and profitable enterprises for many years. Their quality of merchandise, service and personnel has not been replaced by Town Center.

Second: Town Center came about because of the millions of public dollars Charleston and West Virginia acquired to make offers that stores like Sears and J.C. Penney couldn't refuse, not to mention enticements to the developer, Kaufman's and some national chain specialty stores. At the time, we were informed that inducements in at least one case came from the White House. Town Center came because of these public subsidies; Charleston's existing retail downtown died because it got none!

Third: Not only were The Diamond and Stone & Thomas specifically not courted by the city or the developer, but when we initiated conversations, we were told that we should stay where we were, to keep the downtown viable; in other words we were not welcome. They thought they could have their cake and eat it too!

Fourth: Hutchinson states that we "signed on to become keystones of outside development."

While I can't speak for The Diamond, this was not correct for Stone & Thomas.

Fifth: Although we had no involvement in the Corridor developments he refers to, they came and in a huge way. It should be obvious that that is where the greatest retail action in our community is. And those developments came with marginal dollars from public entities!

Sixth: In an effort to retain downtown retail viability, the Downtown Merchants Association formed what became Charleston Renaissance (CRC). This effort and resulting planning was strongly supported with money and top-echelon participation by all the downtown merchants, banks, and property owners and Mayor Smith and then Mayor Roark. This support continued through all subsequent mayors. The CRC leadership recognized what was about to happen to the downtown merchants and property owners.

Brawley Tracy was a leader in this organization by virtue of his position as the chairman of the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority and because he was a property owner. It is to his credit that he and Stanley Loewenstein, another downtown district owner, pushed so hard for the recommended CRC Facade Grant program, which required owners who wanted to improve their property to restore the facades to their original appearance.

For those two owners, it was an expensive requirement, but the main reason that Capitol, Quarrier, Virginia and Lee streets have remained viable, not for retail but for offices and restaurants. If only for that successful effort, Tracy deserves our praise.

Finally, it should be sad to all the residents of Charleston that so much public money and political clout was put into the effort to build a downtown retail center instead of spending that effort and capital to save the jobs of our former chemical, research and other industries and to attract businesses to the downtown as so many other cities at the time were doing. Retail does not create jobs; it lives off the jobs others create. That is the job of development authorities. It's interesting to note that since Town Center was constructed to save us -- Charleston's population has declined almost 20 percent! It's a sad commentary when the Walmarts of the world are our principal employers!

Armbrecht, a former Charleston council member, was chairman of Stone & Thomas.


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