Atlantic Cities

The Business Case for Saying No to National Chains

The Business Case for Saying No to National Chains
Reuters

The new Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn, home to the borough’s first major sports franchise since the Dodgers left town, is settling into its groove after opening for business a couple of months ago.

Opponents of the bitterly contested arena still have their complaints about traffic, public drunkenness and urination, and unkept promises of affordable housing and local jobs (you can find a comprehensive, ongoing archive of the case against Barclays at Norman Oder’s Atlantic Yards Report). But Brooklyn Nets T-shirts and caps have become ubiquitous in the borough, and a series of high-profile shows – Jay-Z, Barbra Streisand, Neil Young, Rihanna – have drawn tens of thousands of music fans to Barclays already. For better or worse, the arena has arrived.

In the “better” column you can count the food concessions. This is the rare arena that has rejected chain franchises in favor of local institutions, drawn from the rich food culture around the borough. Here, you can get barbecue from Williamsburg’s Fatty ’Cue; Cuban sandwiches from Fort Greene’s Habana Outpost; pizza from Gravesend’s Spumoni Gardens; and, in an inspired old-school-new-school mashup, a confection called a concrete that combines Junior’s black-and-white cookies with ice cream from Blue Marble.

Not all the food is to die for, but it’s for the most part a damn sight better than the stuff you get at your average sporting event. And it’s good to know that one of your local butchers (Paisano’s, in my case) has landed a contract that probably is a significant help to their bottom line. It makes eating at the game or the show a much more pleasant experience. If the locally sourced food arrangement works in the long run, it could be a model for arenas around the country, de-homogenizing the slickly packaged experience of sports and concerts and helping to diversify the income stream for neighborhood businesses.

Unfortunately, it looks like an older Brooklyn institution – Coney Island – may be going the other way. The blog Amusing the Zillion (ATZ), which keeps an eye on Coney’s goings-on, reports that several major franchises are poised to move in on Surf Avenue, the neighborhood’s main drag:

Broker Joe Vitacco tells ATZ, “We rented 8,000 square feet to the Johnny Rockets franchisee. He will use 6,000 square feet for the Johnny Rockets and the remaining 2,000 square feet for another national franchise, Red Mango.” The building next door, 1217, will be built out to the lot-line on Surf for Applebee’s, he said. The restaurants will activate long vacant properties next to Stillwell Terminal, which already has a Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins and a Subway and is getting a Checkers hamburger chain. Is the north side of Surf Avenue destined to become a mecca for franchises?

Say it ain’t so. Coney is still reeling from the impact of Superstorm Sandy, with the flagship location of Nathan’s Famous shuttered till spring (a chain itself, true, but one that started here) and the neighborhood’s "church of pizza," Totonno’s, still struggling to recover from a four-foot inundation of water.

It’s true that much of Coney Island’s business district has been sitting vacant or underused for years, and that the money a franchise operation represents is hard to resist. But what does that money cost a community?

Part of what is being sold at the Barclays Center and by the Brooklyn Nets as a franchise is “local color” – the idea of the borough as a distinctive place with distinctive flavor emanating from neighborhoods such as Coney Island. Making that local color a centerpiece of the new arena is a business calculation, one that for the vendors who won spots at Barclays has a potentially huge upside.

But franchises are creeping in everywhere around the borough, not just in Coney Island, and they can mean the end of homegrown flavors. During the planning process for Coney’s amusement district, as ATZ points out, some people talked about limiting franchise access to the area, but were overruled:

Some kind of formula business restriction such as the one in San Francisco, which bans chains in some neighborhoods and regulates them almost everywhere else, would create opportunities for small, independent businesses and prevent Surf Avenue from becoming a strip of franchises. During the hearings leading up to the July 2009 rezoning, a number of individuals and organizations including the Pratt Center for Community Development recommended adopting a formula business restriction policy within Coney East to prevent national retailers and fast food restaurants from locating there. Of course that didn’t happen because the zoning was written to attract these very businesses to Coney Island.

In the long run, more franchises mean higher rents, fewer locally owned businesses, and less real Brooklyn flavor – fewer business like the ones that make the Barclays food concessions special. That should make franchise boosters stop and think. Because even a corporate behemoth like the Barclays Center realizes that a strong hometown identity is, in the end, good for business.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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