The projected redevelopment of the former Shopko building into yet another space for storage units brought a predictable public response.

“What!”

With all due respect for investors in the plan, most residents believe the Greater Beloit community is under-retailed and they’re not wrong. Residents who go back a few years remember dozens of stores at what was then called the Beloit Mall (now the Eclipse Center). Elder-Beerman, at that location, was a higher-end department store. Shopko operated a moderately-priced store carrying all sorts of products. From that era, Walmart is about all that is left.

Of course, older residents remember even more, when downtown Beloit was a regional retail center and home to department stores like McNeany’s and Chester’s along with niche shops like George Brothers men’s store and Clara Stone women’s apparel.

So folks can be forgiven for wondering what the heck has happened to make Beloit such an apparently unwelcome place for a retail economy.

For starters, it’s not just Beloit. The trends are national, if not international. The most recent is the growth of the internet economy, which allows shoppers to park on the couch with their laptops and with the tap of their fingers have desired products delivered to their front doors. A year-plus spent indoors hiding from the virus surely has exacerbated that situation and robbed even more retail dollars from communities.

Earlier, a century-plus trend toward national chain store operations made it tougher and tougher for local shopkeepers to compete. Size and scale matter. Those big retailers, though, have been just as susceptible, if not more, as small operators to the growth of internet marketing. The first move was consolidation of small market national brand stores in favor of nearby larger cities. Now so-called big box stores are having a tough time staying in business in those bigger markets.

For Beloit, in particular, demographic statistics have been and continue to be a major impediment to attracting the kind of brand-name major stores folks routinely say they want. Residents lit up social media on the topic in the wake of the Shopko site plan.

But consider a few statistics, from the U.S. Census Quick Facts site:

  • Population—Beloit, stable at about 37,000; Janesville, growing 1.4% at 64,575; Rockford, 145,600 but down 5%; and for comparison purposes, a hot market, Madison at 260,000, up 11.4%.
  • Median housing value—Beloit, $89,900; Janesville, $142,500; Rockford, $91,600; Madison, $246,000.
  • College graduates—Beloit, 17% of population; Janesville, 24%; Rockford, 22.3%; Madison, 58%.
  • Median household income—Beloit, $43,600; Janesville, $56,300; Rockford, $44,200; Madison, $65,300.
  • Percent in poverty—Beloit, 23%; Janesville, 11.5%; Rockford, 22%; Madison, 17%.
  • Retail sales per capita—Beloit, $13,000; Janesville, $22,300; Rockford, $14,200; Madison, $20,000.

Imagine you are in charge of scouting growth locations for a major national retailer. Madison looks really good. Janesville is competitive. Rockford has some red flags, but its large population counters some of that. Beloit is a tougher sell.

Not impossible, though. It depends on the national brand retailer and what their business plan anticipates. Look along Milwaukee Road, for example, and you’ll find lots of smaller shops with recognizable names. But when it comes to stores like Target, which is often cited by local people as a desirable target (pun intended), Beloit’s numbers are a hard fit.

It’s not all retail doom and gloom, though. There are at least three factors brightening the picture.

Smartly, the Greater Beloit area markets itself as a 10-mile city which includes the townships, South Beloit and close communities like Rockton and Roscoe. That moves the needle on those all-important statistics showing more nearby population and higher disposable income.

There’s evidence the statistics will be improving. For example, Beloit is in the middle of a housing boom with values through the roof. New employers like Amazon build hope for a growing population. As the pandemic gives way to the kind of pent-up economic demand likely to occur, opportunities will be created.

Earlier than many, Beloit has recognized the era of big box national retailers is giving ground to internet marketers. Look at downtown Beloit and the city’s central commercial zone. It has filled up with smaller niche retail and service shops and they are thriving. There’s a message there for would-be retail entrepreneurs. Do the research. Figure out what local people want to buy. Start a specialty shop catering to those needs and offering the kind of customer-focused service seldom found at those big stores or online.

The past is the past and it’s not coming back. The future holds its own promise, and it’s likely to be mostly home-grown. Complaining won’t help get us there. Making a concerted effort to keep local dollars local will, and it will encourage more shopkeepers to choose Beloit. Keep that in mind on shopping day.

William Barth is the former Editor of the Beloit Daily News. Write to him at bbarth@beloitdailynews.com