3-Steps To A Vibrant Downtown


Most cities want to have a vibrant, destination downtown. Few find the keys to succeed in that goal. Why? One of the reasons is how they look at the problem. As a member of our towns downtown business association, I participate in several city downtown re-vitalization discussion groups across our state. The common theme on the posts is one of regulation. Clean it up and they will come… in droves.

It’s understandable that, as a public servant, city personnel’s first inclination is to respond to the challenge based on what they have been trained to do best… regulate. But you can’t regulate your way to success. Trying to revitalize a downtown by cleaning up the decrepit buildings through diligent code enforcement, is only one part of a successful plan.

Code enforcement covers the “penalty” portion of the equation but does little to “revitalize”.  An excellent analogy would be the removal of drugs from a drug user. Although an important element in their rehabilitation, it will never be successful without providing an alternative that replaces the urge. As with the drug user, decaying downtowns need an alternative to further decay and that alternative is a robust “business focused” incentive program.

Because there are no competitive do-or-die pressures similar to what a business person operates under, it is extremely hard for cities to view downtown re-vitalization thorough the prism of a businessperson. Accordingly, most cities view incentives as give-aways with no clear return on investment.

In addition, the political ramifications can be daunting. On the surface, incentives can easily be made to look like special interests and corporate payoffs by political opponents. It takes a strong politician, who is committed to re-development to stand up against those who would use those very incentives as a campaign issue. Even when a business has been “landed” and is doing well, it is extremely hard to show that the incentive was the difference maker. That is why so many towns “talk” re-vitalization, but don’t have the will power to move forward on a comprehensive re-vitalization plan.

Unfortunately, you will never get business participation with more regulations. Because of their very nature, business abhors regulations. Anything that slows them down and prevents them from running their business, will be viewed instinctively as an unnecessary hindrance.  That doesn’t mean cities should relinquish all regulations It simply means that they use them along with a robust incentive program.

In addition, it’s imperative that the city get the business community involved before exercising radical changes (e.g. polling existing proprietors about unsightly storefronts or dilapidated buildings). If the city makes the business community part of the solution, they will have a much greater chance of buy-in and success.

Cities must think like a business owner. Not an easy task for those who have been in the public sector most of their lives. “If I was a business owner, what would it take to get me involved?” That should be the first question a city should ask. “If I’m struggling to make ends meet, what could I, my co-owners and the city do that would provide me with the best return on my investment”.

The city must understand that since the city will still exist if an investment goes south but a business would quite possibly go out of business if that same plan fails, the level of scrutiny is much higher in the business world. When offering incentives, cities must not look at them as a city giveaway but instead should look at them as the business  owner. The question should be, what is the level of risk for me, the business owner, versus the level of return for me. If the risk level, relative to the return, is too great, the plan will never move forward. Ask yourself, if I lost my job because the program was a failure, would I be so quick to engage?

In most cases, businesses will have to see some level of success (or some type of guarantee) before they will commit. Creating incentive programs alone will not do the trick. The city must be engaged. It must not only be an active participant but, especially at the onset, be the driver, with business buy in and participation at every step, to make it happen.

In addition, the city must publicize the progress that has had a direct effect on the business owners bottom line (present or future), not just the city’s goals. No one wants to jump on board the titanic, even if it has the best deck lounge chairs. Everyone want’s to be part of a winner. Let all know, when you have a winner.

Unfortunately, that means that a city often has to initiate and fund the first moves, building a track record that can show quantifiable success. It doesn’t always have to be in the bottom line. New benches, event signs, tree lined streets, street banners, downtown events all show that the city is alive and moving forward. Renovation incentives, rent concessions to attract new businesses. Building facade incentives to “gussy up” existing businesses. All must be part of the mix.

Even the smallest success should be documented. Events, new facades, new business openings, new product mixes are newsworthy if presented in the proper vein. Get input from your local proprietors, talk to visitors and then send out a press release, using their quotes, to the local newspaper. Make sure your news articles are always written in the third person.

A discussion of why more business activity, equals more businesses, which in turn, equals more residents, that in the end, produces more papers sold, blogs read, etc. will help motivate your local newspaper, blogger, etc. to post all your press releases. The articles should speak about the success of the event (e.g. how many people attended, quotes from visitors and store owners, etc.). Your intent should be to create excitement. Show the success, through the eyes of  existing and potential business owners. Every one of those articles should be part of your press kit and new business package.

The next step is to build a coalition of business owners that will actively promote the town. Make sure you have doers not joiners at its head. In Forney, we created the Forney Downtown Business Association. Members are focused solely on downtown Forney. The camaraderie that has been established between the city, the EDC and the FDBA has resulted in fantastic changes in the downtown area. In its first year, the FDBA has successfully applied for and received hot funds to purchase street pole banners and event banners, purchased and installed building outline lighting for the entire downtown area (a project that required the use of city and FDBA membership funds), and is in the process of applying for TXDOT funds to line it’s streets with trees, bushes and planters (a project that the city is working closely with the FDBA to create a master going forward plan).

The success of the FDBA would not have come without the direct assistance and nurturing by the city and the EDC. The city removed all obstacles and assisted in funding on many of our projects.

Understanding that the funds spent today would nurture the new organization and in the end, help move towards its goal of creating a vibrant downtown, the funding is viewed as an investment, not an expense. The EDC provided the focus and wherewithal to get the organization off the ground, it rallied existing members to actively participate, and it funded the FDBA’s formation. All of this was necessary to assure the success of the effort.

The result, the downtown area now has several, very publicized, events, local residents and visitors alike, visit the downtown area at night to see the building lights, our street light banners and event signs are in the planning and design stage and we are now working on our master plan for our downtown planting.

That’s all great but the real “SO WHAT” is that we now have several new businesses opening, five existing businesses have used the facade incentive monies to red-do their buildings and signs, and the EDC is talking to an ever increasing number of potential new businesses who want to be “where the action is”. A great example of where this has led involves a new farmers market. Forney has been trying unsuccessfully for years to attract a farmers market to its historic downtown. It now is working with two that want to locate their businesses in the downtown area.

The bottom line here, is that the city must jump in with both feet (no toe dipping). It must show a commitment to spend the money, cut the regulations and lend a helping hand whenever and wherever it will make a difference. And, it must celebrate it’s victories by sharing them through a focused public relations program. Only then will you get full participation by the local business community. They may not wan’t to jump on the titanic, but they also don’t want to miss a boat that’s ready to sail into a successful and vibrant downtown.

J Stephen