Here’s what I see as the seven best ideas for downtown development (that I can think of right now).
Infrastructure sets the stage of the places we occupy. A downtown is only as big as the infrastructure communicates it to be. I spend a lot of time in Charleston, SC, where my wife and I will walk for miles while downtown. The reason is because we never run out of downtown… the whole peninsula is connected with downtown-like infrastructure.
In Old Town Rock Hill, we have the opposite situation. We have a small area that feels like downtown, and then there are disconnectors. I will walk to City Hall three blocks away from my office, no problem. But I won’t walk the other direction for three blocks. Why? Because in that direction I run out of downtown… a train track, no sidewalks, faster cars, etc. It’s not walkable. Expanding the downtown with walkable infrastructure is a key strategy. So, what makes a downtown walkable? Sidewalks, slow traffic (or no traffic), green space, and “storefront” buildings.
Ever since the 1950’s we’ve been designing cities around the automobile. But we must recognize that cars don’t live in cities; people do. Your downtown needs to be walking and biking friendly. Also the arteries to your downtown need to be the same. Paths, trails, and a streetcar are invaluable investments for the revitalization of your downtown district. Where are the schools? Are they connected to downtown? They should be. Where is the hospital? Is it connected to downtown? Where are the sports tourism destinations? Are they connected to downtown? Ideally, any institution or tourism destination should have some connectivity to downtown other than the automobile.
E-frastructure is part of basic infrastructure. Fiber is necessary for a technology industry. WiFi should be free and hot. There’s not much more to say about this. It’s like water and sewer. It’s necessary.
A developing downtown needs flexible space, as well as flexible property owners. Cowork space is a great addition to any burgeoning downtown. Also, please don’t tear down your class-c space (office or retail). Where else can a micro-preneur fail? You must have a canvas for low-cost entrepreneurship? It breathes life and activity. Tearing down the class-c space in the name of making a nice downtown creates too high of a barrier to entry for the bohemian entrepreneur, and your town will miss out on many possibilities of culture, energy, and surprising success stories.
Training programs are great for not only preparing a workforce (which affects county-wide economic development initiatives) but also for placemaking in the downtown district by locating them there.
We created a program in Rock Hill, SC, where Winthrop University students and York Technical College students come downtown Rock Hill to be trained in website design by RevenFlo (an Internet Marketing company) by developing free websites for non-profit organizations. It has had a significant impact on the creative energy in the revitalizing district. It’s an all-ships-rise program and results in a vibrant space in the downtown.
Crowdsourcing Community Development
The more of your community that participates in the revitalization of your downtown the better. Buy-in comes from participation, and participation comes from buy-in. This is the key to the ever-elusive “tipping point” we seek. Find ways to allow your citizens to crowdsource your community.
We developed a website called Aday Remus (http://adayremus.com) where people can identify a building in their own downtown and describe what they would like to see there in that space. It allows a social community development process, a crowd-sourcing of sorts. The site is free to use, so you should use it in your town.
Also, we have worked with a number of communities to establish programs where the students of the community (university, college, K12) work with the local economic development staff to prototype buildings in a strategically aligned way and for school credit. This gets the local talent and youth involved in the revitalization of the downtown and increases the chance that they will stay in the town (retention!).
Don’t forget that we have a capitalist economy, and that’s a good thing. You can’t subsidize failing businesses. You can’t make a retail store successful. You can’t make a restaurant successful. Only good food, good service, good atmosphere, and appropriate location can make a restaurant successful. Plain and simple.
I see downtown development managers take on the responsibility of making all the businesses in his or her district successful and attempt to use government funds to subsidize them, hoping it will help them get off the ground. The truth is that successful businesses will make it without subsidies, and unsuccessful businesses will fail no matter what. If government focuses on the above six items, then capitalism will handle the rest.