Can free markets fix coconut grove?
I had a long discussion with a dear longtime friend and longtime Coconut Grove resident the other night, asking whether or not the grove could be fixed. This friend has been living in the area since the 1970s, so he’s seen every cycle possible in the neighborhood. I raised the question, “what can be done to save the grove?” His immediate response: “nothing, theoretically a free market will fix it.”
Free Market Theory
Adam Smith, father of modern economic theory, posited that the market will dictate supply and demand, and that we as individuals have little say in controlling it. In any free market, there is a natural order to supply and demand that moves the economy either forward or backward, but causes organic change over time one way or the other. In its current state, the neighborhood of Coconut Grove, once a thriving entertainment area, has seen better days. There are a number of easy to identify factors for this current ebb: more competition from other areas (South Miami, Brickell, Design District, Midtown come to mind), lack of compelling fare (the food is better in other areas), outdated infrastructure, etc etc.
So lets look at the one factor that can be fixed easily by free markets: compelling fare. There are dozens of empty retail and restaurant locations sprinkled throughout the grove. Why is that? Well many were never smartly designed, or were designed for a different era (1990s). But the reality is that many of the landlords are saddled with cost-prohibitive mortgages on the properties they purchased during the height of the boom. This over-priced mortgage is then passed through to the tenants who are charged rents that are unrealistic considering today’s softer real estate market. Realistically very few businesses have the margins required to support the prices being asked of by the landlords in the neighborhood. Coupled with the decreased traffic (pedestrian, not vehicle traffic- as is cited on the CocoWalk owner’s site), its not surprising that these businesses are failing. If the rents were low enough to support small businesses, then these businesses would come to the area.
Bringing people in
One of the areas in which the grove does have an ability to fix its situation is in the branding, marketing, and promotion of the neighborhood. This is an area tasked to the BID, Chamber, and Village Councils. These groups need to take action before all their members (the businesses and the individuals) leave town and they are left holding the bag so to speak. As is, there is no cohesive image that the village is trying to portray, no unified marketing, nothing. Even the billboards that encircle the neighborhood point to businesses in neighboring cities such as Coral Gables.
and then keeping them.
I am stopped at least three times per week while walking my dog around the neighborhood by lost tourists looking for something. I happily give them directions, but realistically there should be better signage, maps, and other simple quick wins to keep and move people around the village. A visitor to CocoWalk would never know how to find Lokal, and its delicious burgers even though they are merely a block away. A visitor to Greenstreet cafe wouldn’t be able to find the movie theater despite it being a couple blocks away as well. Some basic urban planning needs to be done to manage the pedestrian flow.
Finding the champions
Ultimately the first step is to find who will be the champions for the grove. I’ve done my part in getting at least a dozen people to move to the neighborhood, but I don’t have any skin in the game. The champions need to be the property owners, those who stand to lose the most if/when the neighborhood crumbles. Clearly the groups running things now don’t seem to understand the cause/effect relationship of inaction. So who will we task to whip the players into shape? Who will coach the grove into relevance in the 21st century?