Paine bets on relationships, experiences

Superior Mayor Jim Paine.

Superior Mayor Jim Paine doesn’t mince words when explaining his business views, which some might consider out of the norm – at least for their generation.

For instance, the closure of Younkers at Mariner Mall wasn’t unexpected, he told a Tuesday Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon, and it’s unlikely the store will be replaced.

“It was a model of retail that wasn’t working – at least not the way in which it did in the 80s or 90s. It was in a mall that really was not a mall anymore. It had transitioned into a business center long ago,” said Paine, who described himself as “a new urbanist.”

Elected mayor at age 35 to succeed senior citizen Bruce Hagen, he admits he’s been criticized for not eagerly addressing the closures of Younkers, Target and Kmart (the latter two shut down before he was elected).

“We cut the levy two years in a row, but people still continued to focus on retail,” he quipped. Paine said he pushes back on those who fear the closures spell doom for the city’s retail future. His goal, Paine explained, is to educate people about ways in which Superior can have a healthier retail climate than so-called big boxes offered.

“Retailing is not leaving. Retail is changing pretty significantly, and I think it’s for the better,” said the mayor, who also challenged the value of “buy local” campaigns. He freely admitted to shopping online and, voicing words that many Superiorites detest, confessed to shopping in Duluth. 

When Paine distills the act of shopping, he concludes it needs to be more of a social experience – as he believes it was in the past, when Superior stores stayed open late on Thursday nights. He recalled acting several years ago in a play called “It happened at Roth’s,” which was about people who gathered at the popular Roth’s store, which has been closed for decades. 

“People had passionate memories about it,” he said, but they don’t remember what they purchased; they remember who they met. 

“I don’t think people really care about shopping. That’s just a chore, an errand,” Paine said. “Stores are a place people gather and visit with each other,” but the concept doesn’t work at big boxes, he contended. “People say they want big box retailers like Target. I tell them ‘It’s a lot like your high school girlfriend: It’s over, it’s not coming back, and it wasn’t that good to begin with.’”

As evidence, he suggested watching consumers exit a big box store. 

“There aren’t many smiling faces,” Paine said. But people who exit a store in Downtown Duluth “look a lot happier.”

He credited Duluth for preserving many of its historic downtown buildings, noting Superior has been stripped of many similar structures. He suggested the preservation of Downtown Duluth might have been by accident, but noted, “The historic downtown Duluth is still there, despite hard times in the 80s. It’s one of the most beautiful downtowns in Minnesota.”

Canal Park is successful, he added, because of its proximity to Lake Superior. Retail is most successful, Paine said, in cities that offer people-friendly surroundings, such as Savana, Ga.

“Green the spaces up. Make them pretty. It’s easy and it’s cheap,” he said, concluding cars and vehicular infrastructure hurt retail. “We should widen sidewalks, our streets should be narrower, traffic should be slower and safer, and you should see people. We need to emphasize people. Cars are not people. When you step into it (a car), you hate everybody else around you. You cannot communicate. The most thriving business districts in the country are the ones that have gotten away from automobiles and transitioned to bikes and peds. Times Square in New York City no longer has automobiles in it.”

Paine also promoted the value of local store ownership versus chain store retailing. Using an example he called “the donut shop model,” he compared a bare bones local donut shop to a chain donut store for which somebody paid “a half-million dollars” to become the franchisee. 

“If you have a half million lying around, you’re an investor, not an entrepreneur,” he said. “We’d rather help a local entrepreneur who has a passion for making donuts. Both provide economic benefits, but the locally owned one buys a house here, sends kids to school here and stays here when times get tough – because they have to. Their dream dies when their business dies.”

Twin Ports residents spend too much time letting the St. Louis River divide them, he added.

“We are all one people who all benefit together when we all rise together. I’m here to tell you I’m your partner. I‘m your friend and I’m frequently your customer. I hope to be your ally in growing your own businesses and, more importantly, in growing your community,” he said.