I attended the first formal public conversation on Madison's retail future, a meeting called by concerned citizen Ashley Kenneth Allen. A dozen of us gathered at the library to start figuring out why Madison's retail sector is in decline and what we might be able to do to reverse that decline. I have much to write about this very informative meeting.
One remarkable hypothesis inspired by this meeting: Madison may still be depressed. As in the Great Depression.
Mickie Kreidler brought her economic development knowledge and experience living in New Jersey, West Virginia, and Ohio to last night's meeting. She emphasized that population is the fundamental decider of retail success.
That comment got me thinking about what has happened historically with our population compared to other communities a little large than ours. Let's compare Madison with Watertown, Brookings, Mitchell, Huron, Yankton, and Vermillion. The counties those towns seat all enjoyed growth until the Great Depression. All seven plateau'd or dipped in 1940.
Then something interesting happens: the beginning of the postwar baby boom brought population growth to each of those counties except for Lake (that's Madison). Beadle (Huron) grew through 1960, then declined. Of these seven counties, Lake County is the only one to remain in a population depression and never recover its population to 1940 levels.
Huron's decline more clearly coincides with the beginning of the Interstate Highway System. But I-90 didn't stop Mitchell (Davison County) from losing population in 1990. And if distance from the Interstate matters, Yankton should see declines larger than Madison's.
Gene Hexom recalled at last night's meeting that when he was growing up here in the 1940's, Madison had at least five grocery stores, two downtown movie theaters, and not an empty parking space to be found on Saturday night. But the graph above suggests that something else happened in the 1940s that kept Madison from recovering from the Depression.
If population drives retail, then we should figure out what factors drove our population down from 1940 onward that didn't hit our sister South Daktoa cities in the same way. If we can figure out those factors, we can figure out what practical action (if any!) we can take to surmount those factors and fill our downtown store fronts again.