Downtown Article

Downtown Checkup: 4 questions to ask about your downtown

4 questions to ask about your downtown

Written by

Jeremy Murdock

Community Development Specialist, Downtown Strategies

Downtowns across the country from Manhattan to small-town America have followed a similar pattern. In the beginning, the downtown served as the heart and soul of the community. It was the hub of commerce, business life, socializing, worship, and entertainment. A citizen’s daily needs could be accomplished within the easily walkable downtown district. Citizens lived in upper floor units or in neighborhoods that surrounded the downtown core. Nearly all activities happened within a 20-minute walk of the downtown core.

Unfortunately, at some point in history, basically, every community abandoned and ignored its downtown in favor of highway corridors and subdivisions on the outskirts of town. This type of development has continued for several decades and left many downtowns struggling to survive.

However, a new trend has been occurring for the past several years. Community leaders have realized that “Main Street” and small businesses are the heart and soul of the community. The height of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that fact, even more, when communities were forced to be more self-sufficient and depend on local businesses to weather the storm of lockdowns and quarantines. “Shop Local” was no longer a catchy tourism promotion; it was a survival tactic.

While this renewed interest in downtown is exciting, decades of neglect have left a To-Do List that seems exhausting and overwhelming. Creating a spark and renewed energy in your downtown area can be challenging.

Everyone realizes the need for regular health screenings and check-ups. We even do the same for our automobiles. Every several thousand miles we take our car in for a check and tune-up. If your “Check Engine” light comes on, you do not wait years to check it out. You take action immediately to prevent further damage. Unfortunately, the “Check Engine” light has been on for decades in our downtowns, but we just ignore it and keep driving the same path hoping it disappears.

How do you know if your downtown is ready for a checkup?

Here are four questions to ask about your downtown.

  1. Is it attractive, safe, and inviting?
  2. Is it active?
  3. Is there a reason to go downtown?
  4. Are you telling your story?

Need Help?

We can help you answer your questions with free demographics and comparisons with other downtowns.

Questions to ask about your downtown

1. Is your downtown attractive, safe, and inviting?

Downtowns function as walkable, pedestrian-oriented districts. While cars are a vital piece of our modern lives, a downtown district should prioritize the experience of people over the experience of automobiles. Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces stated,

“if you design for cars, you get cars. If you design for people, you get people.”

Downtowns must attract people in order to be successful.

One of the easiest check-ups to perform on your downtown is to analyze the appearance of the area. Simply put, people are not attracted to ugly, boring places. They want to see beautiful buildings, visit exciting shops and restaurants, and enjoy the experience of walking from destination to destination.

Examine your downtown. Is it attractive? Is it clean? Do people feel safe? Does it entice visitors to explore?

Is your downtown free of boarded-up storefronts, trash, and graffiti? Do you have attractive buildings with interesting businesses? Do you have amenities for pedestrians such as street trees, benches, and well-maintained sidewalks? The physical environment of your downtown is often a visitor’s first impression of the area. If the downtown does not feel safe and welcoming, they will simply keep driving.

Questions to ask about your downtown

2. Is your downtown active?

People attract other people. When you look around your downtown, is there activity? Activity such as people walking, shopping, dining, and working. Downtown sidewalks can encourage activity by including benches, outdoor merchandise displays, and outdoor dining. These vibrancy elements should be a focus of the city government as well as private business owners to engage visitors and attract people to the downtown area.

Does your downtown have a mix of businesses? An issue that plagues many cities is the overabundance of law offices and commercial businesses. Although they play a crucial role in providing employees from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., there is really nothing for a visitor or potential customer to do downtown. Having a mix of office space, retail, service providers (salons, barbershops, etc.) and restaurants is key to generating activity throughout the day and night. Can you enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner in your downtown, or is everything closed at 5:00 p.m.?

Successful downtowns have people present 24 hours each day, which highlights the need for downtown housing, an often-overlooked element of downtown revitalization. Check your upper floors. Are they vacant and used for storage or do they offer unique living space for residents?

Community leaders must ensure that policies, incentives, and codes are in place to encourage a mix of uses in the downtown.

Questions to ask about your downtown

3. Is there a reason to go downtown?

Communities must program activities for the downtown. Since downtowns no longer function with everyone’s daily activities occurring within the district, people must be given reasons to visit and spend time. These programmed activities could be events, retail promotions, festivals, parades, or any other activity that attracts people to the downtown area. Tourism plays a big role in this effort, but programs should also focus on locals in the community.

People are attracted to unique experiences. Are you hosting regular events to attract visitors? These events do not have to be large festivals that take months of planning and extensive resources. They could be simple shopping promotions, pop-up art events, live music, etc. You must give people a reason to go downtown in addition to diversifying the business mix.

Questions to ask about your downtown

4. Are you telling your story?

Unfortunately, many residents and visitors are stuck telling “rearview mirror stories.” They can only envision how things were in the downtown’s “good ole days.” They tell stories of when Main Street was packed on the afternoon of a cattle auction or how once there were two theatres, 2 department stores, a five-and-dime, etc. While preserving the community’s history is important, we must move past those stories into the present.

Taking your downtown from where it is currently to the next level can seem daunting at times. Community leaders must craft a new narrative to better tell their story and portray that future vision. Marketing and branding are often one of the first steps because telling the outside world about the vision and future state of the downtown area will generate excitement and momentum as leaders begin to move forward with larger initiatives.

As change begins to happen, even if it is slow, you must capture and tell that story. Every new streetscape enhancement, every new business, and every updated storefront is a step forward. Promote those small successes as another piece of the puzzle so outsiders begin to see the shift. Soon the perception of the community will change, and the momentum will build.

Conclusion

While totally revitalizing your downtown may take time, creating a spark can happen immediately. Often communities excel at one or two of the check-up questions but have hit a roadblock with some of the others. Maybe you have invested in infrastructure improvements and façade grants resulting in a post-card-worthy streetscape, but your buildings remain empty, or you struggle to recruit high-quality tenants. Maybe you have an amazing mix of businesses, but you struggle to tell your story.

Downtown Strategies would love to discuss your challenges and successes and identify how our team can help take your downtown to the next level. Let us take a look under the hood and identify short-term strategies to help create a spark and build momentum in your community.

We can help you narrow down the long list of ideas and To-Do items and identify a starting point!

Need Help?

We can help you answer your questions with free demographics and comparisons with other downtowns.

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