One Image, One Question: Muskogee, OK

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Before there were interstate highways, there were main streets —  gateways to business and commerce and culture.

A solitary scene on what once was a vibrant, thriving small-town downtown.

Every small and medium-sized town across America had a main street; but, many communities haven’t been the same since the four-lane, limited access highways were built 60 or so years ago.

This image of Broadway Street, in Muskogee, Oklahoma — the town’s main street, although there is a Main Street — was taken Saturday, June 17. We were in this community in the northeast part of the Sooner State for a memorial service, and I decided to go for a stroll downtown.

The time, around 11 a.m.  The compelling thought: The absence, aside from myself, of people and traffic on a Saturday morning. There were a few open businesses operating in still impressive and preserved brick storefronts, but patrons were scarce.

I learned downtown Muskogee once had a Sears department store and an independent retailer named Anthony’s. The pedestrian and vehicular traffic certainly would have been robust on a Saturday morning 30 or 40 years ago, not absent as during my visit.

Lots of commerce could be found, however, along the highways surrounding Muskogee. Motels, healthcare centers, big box retailers, fast food restaurants and auto dealerships abound. These businesses were thriving, and workers were completing a new restaurant/bar — I Don’t Care Bar and Grill.

The same can be said, of course, to many small towns and even suburban communities outside Chicago and other cities: Call it development, call it sprawl, but when new business interests and the local economy spreads from the initial urban core, the result is devastating to the fabric of main streets.

Now to the question:

What can small towns like Muskogee, Oklahoma, and many others across the nation do to revitalize its main street?

One obvious strategy: Give people a reason to head downtown again, to make it a destination.

One strategy that should be considered: “Pop up” stores that could occupy vacant or underutilized retail spaces for a day or extended period.

Your thoughts?