On Main Street America, it's charm versus chains

There are times - when the moist Mississippi River breeze blows in over endless fields of cotton - that people here can swear Ernest Hemingway still calls at his in-laws' house down the road.

In truth, the great writer last came here in the 1930s, back when he was writing "A Farewell to Arms." Yet the never-too-distant scent of fecund earth still fills the town streets as it did then, and couples still gossip over ice cream sundaes at Seals Pharmacy's marble soda fountain.

Yes, the Packards may have been replaced by pickups, but there's not a single Wal-Mart or Walgreen's. And the people of Piggott intend to keep it that way.

Piggott is one of hundreds of towns across America that are increasingly having to weigh business growth against preservation. As Main Streets have lured back shoppers after years of revitalizing efforts, they have also attracted business chains - especially drugstores - and their sometimes prefab-looking stores.

So far, Piggott has managed to keep its charm, but other towns have not been as successful, and some residents worry that neighborhoods across the US are losing their heritage.

"As a result of this push to locate new stores in the hearts of historic neighborhoods, architecturally significant buildings - sometimes entire blocks - are demolished for ... big-box type stores," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

As a result of this concern, the National Trust has placed the generic "corner of Main and Main" at the top of its Most Endangered Historic Places list. And it has met with drug-store executives from Walgreen Drug Stores, CVS, and Rite Aid to talk about the problem.

"We try to recognize their economic goals, and we hope they will recognize our ... preservation goals," says Mr. Moe.

Sometimes, Moe says, businesses have adapted older buildings in downtown areas to create a popular image, blending new with old. He points to Starbucks and Banana Republic as good examples and notes that Rite Aid converted an old Beaux-Arts bank in New York into a store.

But companies counter that they are under no obligation to keep or resuscitate old, sometimes derelict buildings. "What we have is a very successful retail concept. It works," says Michael Polzin, spokesman for Walgreen's. "We're certainly open to listening to anyone and hearing what they have to say. Whether we can fit what they want us to into our store concept is certainly another question."

In the next several years, three new drugstores will open every day in the United States, according to figures from the National Trust. Walgreen's alone expects to add some 3,300 stores during the next decade, Mr. Polzin says.

The growth among all drugstores is already touching some downtowns.

*In Whitpain Township, Pa., the city approved demolition of a 200-year-old inn to make room for a CVS pharmacy.

*In Rockland, Mass., residents are fighting the proposed destruction of historic homes for a Walgreen's.

*In Nashville, the Jacksonian Apartments - which were eligible for the National Register - were razed to accommodate another Walgreen's.

*In New York, 16 communities have lost important structures or even entire commercial blocks to drugstore chains during the past two years.

"When towns become as generic as a Holiday Inn or a Wal-Mart, they loose their sense of place and community," says Claudia Shannon, an activist in Arkansas who is helping Piggott maintain its 1920s court-house square. "In fact, you may not even know which town you are in."

For now, Piggott's flavor remains intact, and residents here say their town's historic appeal is a priority they intend to protect. "We really strive to keep chain stores out of here by standing up to them," says Rodney Rouse, co-chairman of the group working to revitalize Piggott. "We are really making efforts to keep the town like it is. We know we have something special."

Jean Kinslow of nearby Kennett, Mo., agrees. "This is one of the quaintest towns around this area," she says while admiring China dolls in Sugar Creek antiques. "It's a really neat place that stands out on its own because it doesn't have any fast-food places or Wal-Marts."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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