I had a lovely visit this week to a small city where I’m doing some research on an upcoming article. Like most cities in the Northeast, this one is definitely missing its manufacturing-related employment base, and lots of people there are working hard to try to revitalize its downtown in a post-industrial world. It’s a struggle.
Notable among those people is a consortium that has come together to purchase out of foreclosure a large block of downtown buildings. These buildings front on the town’s main street and along one side street. They have retail space on the ground floor and office space and/or apartments above. The new owners are refurbishing the apartments and they are rented. Some of the office space is rented. Many of the retail spaces are empty.
There’s one retail space that’s of particular interest to them, and now to me. It’s a large corner space that gets a lot of sunlight, and it sits directly across a big intersection from one of the major gateways into the city. It’s empty but, unlike the other empty spaces, it actually has a tenant. A pawn shop had been there and had closed a couple of years ago, and now the owner wants to reopen. He has diligently paid his rent during those intervening years.
Here’s the problem: During his absence the city passed an ordinance prohibiting pawn shops (and a couple of other uses) from locating on its main street, although they can locate in several other areas. This pawn shop, since it existed before the ordinance was passed, is grandfathered and there are no legal restrictions to its coming back. (Once the owner gives up his lease those grandfather rights will expire.) However, the return of a pawn shop to its main street is not what the city wants to see happen.
The city argues that pawn shops have a propensity for trading in stolen items and for bringing an unsavory element to the neighborhood, and, less tangibly, that they area a signal to observers of a community in financial distress, all of which is obviously not good for other business. Plus, this shop is in a truly prime downtown location.
On the other hand, the shop owner contends that pawn shops are heavily regulated — for example, he must take a copy of the ID of any seller, then take a photo of that seller plus the merchandise being sold, and submit all three to the local police — and are therefore a more trustworthy business than any of the jewelry stores in town, which can buy and sell with much lighter regulation. (We will leave aside for the moment the fact that this pawn shop may also be able to trade in firearms, and the related fact that there is a firearms store in the city, although not on the main street.) The owner has offered to restrict his merchandise to jewelry as opposed to handling electronics as well, and has offered to remove the word “Loans” from his signage, but he wants to continue to display the iconic three gold balls in his window along with the words “Pawn Shop.” And, he points out, even tony Palm Beach, Florida, has a pawn shop (perhaps thanks in part to Bernie Madoff), so they’re not automatically a signal of a distressed community.
The landlords, while they may agree philosophically with the city, are glad to have the rent in an area where most of their other spaces stand empty and retailers aren’t beating the door down. And I’m guessing the shop owner wouldn’t want to come back unless he thought he could make a buck, which means he may be providing an unfortunate but necessary service to the community. So the owners are trying to mediate between the shop owner and the city to craft a compromise that will make the pawn shop a little more welcome in town than it otherwise might be.
So I dunno. Is it ever possible for a pawn shop to be a good citizen of a community?