If you have been on the eastern border of France near Switzerland and Germany you may have visited Mulhouse, a former textile manufacturing town that has gone sleepy and was past its prime. But as The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis reports in the past decade 470 new stores and businesses have come to Mulhouse, with over 3/4 of these being independent operators. “It is one of the only places in France with as many independents as franchises. And it is one of very few places in France where more shops are opening than closing.”
So what is the Mulhouse Magic and how did they attract new businesses? The town with a population of 110,000 made a point of attracting and promoting independent businesses that were not part of chain stores. Like America big box retail has tried to lure the French market to more suburban locations, but a combination of factors have made Mulhouse radically different.People want to go and spend time downtown.
With a 36 million dollar euro investment plan over six years the town recreated its downtown as an “agora”, a center welcoming residents, and rebalanced its housing plan. Many high salaried citizens had moved to housing outside of the downtown core, leaving many properties vacant. By subsidizing building facade renovation and installing a tram system, bike shares, shuttle buses and easily accessible parking, Mulhouse demonstrated it was open for business.
But here is the piece that is important-the town’s public spaces and downtown environment were key in the transformation of Mulhouse into a place to locate businesses and to shop. The magic ingredients? Wide sidewalks, benches, and lots and lots of tree planting and landscaping.
“Making the town’s public spaces attractive was just as important, with wider pavements, dozens of benches, and what officials deemed a “colossal budget” for tree planting and maintenance, gardening and green space. Local associations, community groups and residents’ committees were crucial to the efforts. A town centre manager was appointed to support independents and high-street franchises setting up.”
Because of Mulhouse’s location close to Switzerland and Germany shoppers came with higher incomes. A mix of independent stores that were exclusive to Mulhouse became the town’s new brand and brought in customers. The goods and the services offered were at a small personal scale, a resident scaled market that had places not only to shop but to socialize.
As one shopkeeper stated “The idea was to create somewhere where people feel good, to re-appropriate our town centre as a kind of agora, the place where everyone can meet.”
The Mayor now hopes to replicate the success of the downtown independent shops in the neighbourhoods surrounding the downtown. Like Manchester England which also was a textile town Mulhouse has a canal system that was used by the textile industry and then abandoned. The town is planning to renovate the canal frontages, improve night time lighting, and look at the fine grain needed to encourage public space and socialization.
That is the key to successful and effective retail-instead of concentrating on just getting new businesses in, the town has emphasized creating a place for people to go to, linger, and feel part of. And that atmosphere is bringing people into the town’s centre.
“Geneviève Pilnard, an 89-year-old widow, takes a taxi every Friday from her village outside Mulhouse into the town centre, where she goes to the hairdresser, the market, the cheesemonger and the independent bookshop.“I like to keep the habit of coming in, because I don’t want to live like a recluse,” Pilnard says. “After all, a bustling town centre represents life.”