Atchison has a rich history of explorers and visionaries. Lewis and Clark celebrated Independence Day on our banks during their westward trek.
Amelia Earhart was born and developed her intrepid sense of adventure here. The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe railroad originated here, before cutting a path west. Our history echoes to this day, and we have always celebrated pushing boundaries and cutting a new path.
Unfortunately, while that spirit is alive and well in the hearts of our city, our small business community can often feel like it’s fighting a rising tide. Facing the same issues that have claimed mom and pop shops all over America, local business owners have to compete with the big box stores and Amazons of our brave new world.
On top of this sea change in business, a unique challenge faces Atchison, in that we are one of the few small municipalities nationwide to have a pedestrian mall. Three city blocks of downtown were converted to a mall after twin floods in the ’50s devastated our community. There are many empty storefronts among this corridor, and the dilemma to remove it or not is a constant source of friction in town.
Atchison business owners are tough, however. We have seen new businesses pop up in our downtown, and they are bravely charting a new course for Atchison. Atchison residents have recently opened coffee shops, art galleries, vintage home goods shops, stylish boutiques, digital marketing companies, bakeries, and chiropractic clinics in our downtown.
Atchison should be incredibly proud of these entrepreneurs. When looking at patterns of where businesses are opening, however, it becomes apparent that very few of them are choosing to open on the mall.
The city has recently made streetscape improvements to the 700 and 800 blocks of Commercial Street that give this portion of downtown a cohesive feel. It’s not surprising that most of our recent business activity has followed that investment.
Atchison has also emphasized nurturing entrepreneurship starting in grade school and continuing through, and past the opening of a new business. Atchison is investing in entrepreneurs like never before, partnering with local banks to provide the gap financing that until now had kept ideas from making that leap to reality.
With all this work to develop entrepreneurs, it’s time to make our downtown more inviting for small businesses, and provide an environment that doesn’t hold them back. I’ll be honest that as a proponent of pedestrian safety, and all that makes Atchison unique, I was initially resistant to the idea of removing the mall. It’s hard to argue with the facts though. Storefronts lay empty, and instead of seeing customers coming in the front door of existing businesses, they have opened up the back door to meet the needs of their customers.
It’s time to explore options on Commercial Street to replicate the same prosperity occurring just west of the mall. By extending the improved streetscape to the 500 and 600 blocks, we will open up more of downtown to investment and give small business owners a better chance of success. With a grant from KDOT that will pay 75% of the cost, we have an opportunity like never before.
It will be important as we go through this process to keep downtown welcoming to all the events that currently take place on the mall. Removable decorative bollards could be installed at intersections to close down the street for all the large festivals. We can also develop the 400 block into a better-used plaza area for smaller events.
Downtown Atchison is at a crossroads. Take a walk down the mall and it will be apparent that despite its charm, it is no longer serving Atchison’s best interests. Removing the mall and opening it up to new development will allow Atchison to build on our success stories, grow a thriving downtown, and maybe inspire the next generation of risk-takers.