Don’t obstruct those ghost shoppers!

Published 12:08 am Thursday, August 4, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking along the sidewalk perusing store after store in what was obviously a vibrant, bustling business day. Occasionally, I would stop and look through the merchandise that was displayed on racks and cases on the sidewalk and in front of the businesses. While casually meandering through a slew of varied enterprises, I requisitioned a cup of coffee and parked myself at an outdoor sidewalk table in front of the bookstore (umbrella affixed) and enjoyed a bit of people-watching. Streams of people were on the street this day, and, it being a Wednesday afternoon, I marveled that maybe this area might survive the Great Recession. I was in Asheville, of course, and not downtown Washington.

But I am sure you can excuse any momentary confusion you may have had if you had the opportunity to read the article in the Washington Daily News regarding the recent actions of the Planning Board. Surely, you must have thought downtown Washington was just overflowing with tourists and shoppers and hordes of the unwashed masses since the Planning Board wasn’t discussing ways to unleash the business community and improve the outlook in downtown. No, instead they were discussing the oh-so-important issue of magazine box removal and cracking down on sidewalk sales and displays by the skeleton crew of downtown businesses that have managed to survive despite the highest utility rates in the area, over-regulation and an economic slump.

As I perused the article, one thing stood out the most to me, and I literally chuckled to myself when I read that “The board also is looking at possible changes to regulations governing free-standing signs and tables with merchandise on them on public sidewalks” because they may “obstruct” traffic on the sidewalks. What traffic? Do we have phantom shoppers and citizens that I am unaware of? Because I do know that one day last week we counted eight total people on all of Main Street from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Are we being invaded by an invisible army of denizens that are just tripping over the advertising signs and merchandising displays of downtown’s struggling businesses? If so, perhaps someone ought to call the “Ghostbusters.”

The City Council will ultimately have final say on whether such madness is enacted. I, for one, will make my voice heard and every citizen of Washington that doesn’t want all the businesses to flee to friendly climates ought to do the same!

Gary Ceres is co-owner of I Can’t Believe It’s a Book Store in downtown Washington.