Downtowns are back and more important than ever. They should be at the top of your priority list. see more
I was the keynote speaker at the North Dakota Main Street conference, one of the largest in the country, with nearly 600 downtown enthusiasts in the audience. After my session I met Governor Doug Burgum, one of the smartest governors in the country.
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “how did you surmise that he’s one of the smartest governors in the country?“
Because Main Street tops his five major initiatives for the state of North Dakota.
Now you might be thinking, “Really? Main Street? A top initiative?”
Let me explain.
For the past couple hundred years in the U.S. and Canada, people have migrated to where the jobs were located, typically in large metropolitan cities, near major transportation corridors, or where natural resources have created job opportunities. But now, for the first time in North American history, quality of life is leading economic development.
That means jobs are going where the talent is, or where the talent wants to be. In fact, cities and towns with a high quality of life are seeing amazing rewards.
The term, “quality of life” is very subjective and overused, and most people think their towns have it. But in reality, there are three primary factors that are key components to great quality of life:
- A vibrant downtown—downtown is a great gathering place
- Great schools and educational opportunities
- Awesome recreational activities and cultural depth
In North Dakota there are more than 30,000 family-wage jobs currently available (thousands paying more than $100,000 a year). But the state has a cloud hanging over it: “Who wants to live in North Dakota?”
It’s actually an amazing and beautiful state. It’s nothing close to the “frozen tundra” image it has for a good portion of the year. If there’s a cloud hanging over you, the solution is to tell a different story, or showcase something so great that it minimizes that dark perception.
In North Dakota, cities and towns need to reimagine and redevelop their downtowns: Programming them so they are full of life, particularly after 6:00 pm, with an orchestrated business mix and cultural depth, in an attractive, pedestrian-friendly, intimate setting. A downtown like this makes those winter months absolutely “worth it.”
Believe me, I know, but from an opposite perspective. You see, I live in the Phoenix area of Arizona, where I often quip that we live in the Valley of the Sun eight months of the year, with fabulous weather, but yes, the other four months we live on the surface of the sun. But “it’s worth it,” because of the lifestyle—or quality of life.
Downtowns are back and more important than ever. They should be at the very top of your priority list. The heart and soul of any community, besides its people, is its downtown. It’s your nucleus. It’s your Third Place: The First Place is your home, the Second Place where you work, and the Third Place where you go to hang out.
For site selectors, commercial real estate agents and investors, your downtown is the litmus test for “livability.” The health of your downtown, economically, represents the health of the community, economically—fair or not.
is on the right path and has his priorities for North Dakota in the right order. Coming from the BurgumGovernor private-sector, and having invested in downtowns, the Governor has seen proof that investing in Main Street actually works!
This is a priority every state, every province, and every community needs to put at the top of their list.
- Roger Brooks
What are you doing to make your downtown the community’s living room? see more
I’ll never forget one of my first conversations with Michelle Lintz, the former (and now retired) Director of the Rapid City, South Dakota Convention & Visitors Bureau. She had contracted with us to develop a tourism development plan, and I wanted to convince her to focus on the downtown core.
We had secret-shopped the city and surrounding area using our popular Destination Assessment program, and during the Assessment Findings & Suggestions Workshop, I referred to downtown Rapid City as the “hole in the middle of the doughnut.”
Within a 30-minute drive from downtown Rapid City are some of America’s best, most iconic attractions:
- Mt. Rushmore National Monument
- Sturgis, home to the largest motorcycle rally in the world
- Crazy Horse Memorial
- The historic Western town of Deadwood
- The Black Hills, legendary for its gold
- Badlands National Park
- Spearfish Canyon, where Kevin Costner filmed parts of the movie Dances With Wolves
And that’s just the short-list. Rapid City hosts more than four million visitors a year and also owns ”The Great American Road Trip” brand.
What we learned was that visitors would typically spend the night in Rapid City, get up early, and head out to these attractions. When they returned in the evening, downtown was mostly closed, so visitors headed back to their hotels or on to their next road trip destination.
As I was talking to Michelle, I gave her three statistics that helped chart a new course from the “tourism plan” to a “downtown plan.”
- The number one activity of visitors, in the world – not the reason they come, but the top activity once they arrive – is shopping, dining and entertainment in a pedestrian-friendly setting. In fact, this is where eighty percent of non-lodging visitor spending takes place. Why do you think Disney built Downtown Disney outside each of its parks?
- Seventy-percent of all retail (bricks-and-mortar) spending takes place after 6:00 pm. With tourism, people want to spend the night where there’s life and activity after they return from a day recreating in the area. Additionally, conventions, conferences and trade shows gravitate to places where there are things to do at the end of the day. Is it any wonder that the San Antonio Riverwalk, Orlando, Las Vegas, and large metropolitan areas garner the lion’s share of conventions?
- If locals aren’t hanging out in your downtown, neither will visitors. They go where you go.
Downtown Rapid City is home to the Alex Johnson Hotel, which, at that time, was operating only seasonally with many of the floors permanently closed. The heart of downtown had more than a dozen retail vacancies and a high rate of turnover. Downtown was NOT the place to go hang out, but was generally the place to avoid.
It didn’t take much convincing, and Michelle gave the green light to focus on downtown.
At the top of the recommendations list was the conversion of a 65-space (one-acre) parking lot in the center of downtown to a year-round public plaza to be programmed with at least 250 days of activity each year.
Communities have been built around central plazas or piazzas for centuries throughout Europe. We’re finally getting the message in North America.
In fact, the top two revitalization strategies in North America include the development and programming of public assembly spaces, or plazas, with a key emphasis on “programmed,” and/or year-round public markets – both with a focus on “after work and weekends” programming.
The bottom line: Where people spend time, consistently, retailers will follow. Think back a couple of generations: When people moved to the suburbs, the retail went with them in the form of suburban malls. And downtowns began a generation of declining vibrancy and increasing vacancies.
A third of all suburban malls are now on the “endangered list” as people are gravitating back to downtowns – not for the downtown shopping of yesteryear, but as the community’s central gathering place.
Thus, Main Street Square, in the heart of downtown Rapid City, became a reality. Young families began returning to Rapid City. Downtown became THE place to spend time. In fact, Summer Nights, every Thursday during the summer months, sees nearly 13,000 people downtown. Main Street Square’s ice rink operates 90 days a year, and the splash pad another 120 days. When you add the concerts and entertainment, vendors, Movies on the Square every Monday night (average attendance of 3,500), all this action and entertainment adds up to at least 250 days of “activity” downtown.
The Alex Johnson Hotel, just a block away, is now fully open and was just rated by Conde Nast Traveler as South Dakota’s best hotel, and it’s a fabulous up-scale place to stay. Conferences and convention sales are at an all-time high. And downtown Rapid City is now a “must visit” attraction, joining the list of other major attractions that make Western South Dakota one of America’s premier and most sought-after destinations.
Also check out Sundance Square in Fort Worth, Texas. Indian Creek Plaza in Caldwell, Idaho. Sir Winston Churchill Square in Edmonton, Alberta. And downtown plazas are soon coming to Topeka, Kansas, and Michigan City, Indiana. This is the future for the best cities and towns – big and small – in North America.
How about your downtown? If you can create activity that will attract your locals downtown at least 250 days a year, retailers will be back – and they will be open the hours the people are there.
Make your downtown the community’s living room – the place your residents want to spend their leisure time, gathering with friends and family, having fun, eating, being active and entertained – and you are bringing your downtown to life. Merchants will open new shops and restaurants because the people are there. This is “Place Making,” and it is the lifeblood that makes YOU the destination of choice, as a place to live, invest in, and visit.
- Roger Brooks
Downtown beautification is a VERY important piece of the puzzle to a successful downtown. However... see more
Recently our team was secret-shopping the town of Vernal in Northeastern Utah, using our popular Destination Assessment program. Vernal is near the incredible Wall of Bones National Monument in the heart of Utah’s dinosaur country. As we approached downtown, we saw that Main Street was lined with large aggregate planters every ten feet, overflowing with bright, colorful petunias. Plus, there were hanging baskets all along the street, also overflowing with the gorgeous blooms. It was such a spectacular sight that many locals drive up and down Main Street just to enjoy the flowers. Of course, we did too.
As we drove down Main Street, we saw that behind all those gorgeous planters, the retail spaces were mostly vacant. In fact, we saw very few people walking along the sidewalks. There were one or two great shops and eateries that looked attractive, but for the most part, downtown was empty. The city had done their best to make downtown beautiful, but the property owners have done little or nothing to capitalize on the city’s investment.
Consider Carnegie Hall. It is one of the most beautiful and renowned concert halls in North America, with ornate frescoes adorning the walls and ceiling, magnificent chandeliers, gorgeous draperies, stunning sets, and velvet covered seats. Magnificent.
But here’s the million-dollar question: No matter how beautiful Carnegie Hall is, would you go there if there were nothing happening on the stage? And if you would be willing to go once, just to see it, would you want to come back again with no performance to see?
Many cities spend millions, even tens of millions of dollars, to make their downtowns beautiful, and then find that even though their efforts resulted in a beautiful space, downtown is still dead—void of activity and commerce.
It’s what’s IN the buildings that The job was only half done. A downtown needs the right business mix. If you don’t “orchestrate” the business mix, working with your property owners and downtown businesses to draw customers makes your downtown an attraction—the rest is window dressing. in their doors, then your beautiful streetscapes are a waste of money. They won’t increase property values, retail sales and services, or make downtown the place people want to spend time—and money. It’s lipstick on a pig, and that’s not how you revitalize a downtown.
Here are the three primary steps to turning your downtown into a thriving destination for locals and visitors alike:
- Decide what you want the focus of downtown to . If you want it to be about kids and family, then where do you place the carousel? What about interactive water features? A splash pad? Plus the supporting retail shops and eateries that cater to families. If, on the other hand, you want downtown’s focus to be about nightlife and entertainment, where are the micro-brews, the eateries with live music, the performing arts venues, street music and vendors?be
- Next up, what will it look like? Now that you know what the focus of downtown is, it’s important to make it look like that. This is your programming and streetscape plan.
- Finally, you MUST work with your property owners and businesses to make sure you have the business mix that will solidify your “brand”—your downtown focus. What do you need to include downtown that will make you THE destination for your particular audience? This is the business mix that will cater to the primary audience you’re attracting downtown, for example, toy stores and children’s clothing shops for a family focus.
The bottom line is that a streetscape, by itself, is not enough to revitalize a downtown. Don’t get me wrong, though, downtown beautification is VERY important as one piece of the puzzle to a successful downtown. You won’t find a bigger proponent for beautification than me!
BUT beatification, by itself, will not succeed in revitalizing a downtown. The buildings need to be full of a great business mix. But if you love dinosaurs and want to see and touch dinosaur bones as they were discovered in the ground, Vernal should be on the very top of your list—it’s an amazing destination. While there, be sure to enjoy Main Street in all its flowering glory—and hopefully, the property owners will finish the other half of the job: orchestrating and recruiting a successful business mix.
- Roger Brooks
ArticleMain Street areas are thriving in places where communities are investing! see more
Main Street Districts on the rise? You bet!
Main Streets and traditional downtowns are on the rise. And they are making a difference in communities all over North America. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program looked at reinvestment in the 2,000 Main Street programs launched since 1980 (32 years).
- $53.6 billion was invested in these communities
- 104,961 businesses moved to these community centers
- 448,835 jobs have been created or located into these downtowns
- 229,164 buildings have been rehabilitated
- The reinvestment ratio is $18:$1
- More than 80% of Main Street communities saw an increase in “Mom and Pop” or independent businesses opening in their districts
- Main Street areas are thriving in places where communities are investing – and they’re seeing big returns!