Placemaking and the Economic Development Potential of Downtown

I recently attended the Piedmont Triad Tomorrow Summit, an event in Winston-Salem bringing together local and regional planners from a 12-county area in central North Carolina. Featuring a wide array of topics - and lots of advice for sparking economic growth - the summit was an opportunity for planners to meet, mingle, and learn. The event was sponsored by the Piedmont Triad Regional Council (PTRC), one of North Carolina’s 16 regional councils, and structured to help the council’s member governments confront economic development challenges and get tips on kick-starting and strengthening their local economies.

Two of the largest demographics in history – the baby boomers and millennials – are both actively seeking more walkable, vibrant, urban environments.

While there were many interesting presenters, the most inspiring delivery focused on downtown placemaking as economic development and the story you create for your community (“branding”). Roger Brooks (of Roger Brooks International) has vast expertise in revitalizing downtowns and helping communities focus on their niche offerings as a driver of economic development. Brooks began his presentation by reminding us that we are currently witnessing the revival of downtown as a desirable place to be and be seen. Two of the largest demographics in history – the baby boomers and millennials – are both actively seeking more walkable, vibrant, urban environments. The market responds to these demands and, as planners, we are more frequently asked to help our clients and communities capture that je ne se quois – that elusive feeling of knowing you are in a special place, but you can’t quite put your finger on why. More simply (and in English) planners typically call this placemaking.

  Photo credit: Anson Burtch

Photo credit: Anson Burtch

At the root of placemaking is tapping into a community’s assets to cultivate places and spaces that promote health, connections, and general wellbeing. Brooks reminded his audience that, to be attractive (to jobs, residents, tourists, etc.) cities need to focus on making places desirable. This goal ultimately drives the direction of economic development, character-building, and creating a sense of community. Making your downtown active and vibrant (i.e. desirable) is especially important. Why?

...to be attractive (to jobs, residents, tourists, etc.) cities need to focus on making places desirable.
  • Downtown = visitor spending. Downtown visitors shop, dine, and play. Approximately 80% of non-lodging spending takes place in downtowns.
  • Tourism kick-starts and boosts long-term economic development. Think of downtown investment to promote tourism as a first step to future growth.
  • Downtowns are the heart and soul of a community. If residents aren’t present in downtown, visitors will notice.
  •  It is especially important to have things to do and see after work hours and on weekends. 
  Photo credit: Anson Burtch

Photo credit: Anson Burtch

Downtown is the traditional heart of the community and it remains a key focus for economic development initiatives. For the first time in many years we are witnessing jobs moving back into downtowns, in response to where talent resides. Anecdotally, this phenomenon has been observed locally in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, as companies choose to start up in or move into downtown Durham and Raleigh from suburban locations to attract and keep first class talent.

The Building Blocks of a Great Downtown

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a great downtown? Lively streets? An iconic stadium? Great restaurants? Major the Bull? Well, maybe if you live in Durham. Downtowns contribute to community identity and help create a sense of place. They serve as a host for nightlife, dining, and recreation, and investing in downtown has a twofold advantage as it boosts both native community development and attracts outside tourism. A study conducted by Brooks’ firm surveyed over 2,000 downtown districts in the U.S. Using the 400 most “successful” downtowns (criteria and methodology can be found on page 2 here), they identified the elements most conducive to success. A few key takeaways:

  Photo credit: Roger Brooks International

Photo credit: Roger Brooks International

  Photo credit: Roger Brooks International

Photo credit: Roger Brooks International

  • People will slow down and feel more comfortable walking in intimate settings, resulting in longer stays and more spending. Making downtown pedestrian friendly (narrow streets, wide sidewalks, pedestrian islands, landscaping buffers) is key. Think about your street trees and canopy cover. Trees provide tangible economic benefits as well as providing shade and a pleasant aesthetic.
  • Many people work traditional hours, between 9 AM and 5 PM. Offer dining, shopping, and entertainment after 6 PM when they can take advantage of it. Approximately 70% of retail spending occurs after 6pm. To tap into this spending power, you need a downtown that’s open for business after business hours.
  • Aim for 10 food establishments and 10 retail shops with at least 10 of those open after 6 PM, within a three-square block area. This is the critical mass required to activate downtown and can become a self-sustaining economic engine.
  • Cities and towns need public gathering places. An open-air, programmed public plaza serves as the focal point of a vibrant downtown. “Programmed” means things to do or see. Invest in culture - regularly scheduled musicians, street performers, kids’ activities, a weekly farmers market and/or local arts and crafts market, or a splash pad in the summer that converts to a skating rink in the winter - these are all examples of things that can activate downtown. Where people flock, businesses follow.
  • Integrating mixed use development into downtown increases the number of people present, both day and night. The mix of commercial, retail and residential can also help boost the tax base. Developments can include residential, creative office space, affordable housing, and lodging uses all with first floor retail. Add bonus points if your downtown supports transit oriented, mixed use development to quickly and easily bring people in from outside downtown.
  Photo credit: Anson Burtch

Photo credit: Anson Burtch

  Photo credit: Roger Brooks International

Photo credit: Roger Brooks International

  Photo credit: Durham Central Park

Photo credit: Durham Central Park

If you felt like I did during Brook’s presentation, you may be thinking - this all sounds great, but how do we make it happen? Fret not, answers are coming. Brooks tells us there are several key steps you can take right now to set this in motion.

  • First, you must find your champion. Every movement needs a leader, that person who shares the vision and gets elected officials and business organizations onboard. This can be an elected official, such as a town manager, a resident, a local business leader, or the head of the downtown association. The important thing is that they are a tireless champion, selling the vision, rallying others, and getting things done.
  • Second, find your focus. What existing assets does your town have that can be utilized? Some might be food establishments with a farm-to-table local focus, or night-life with microbreweries, concert venues, or a theater. Arts and antiques, gardening and horticulture, themed shopping (western, southern, upscale), or outdoor lifestyle are all opportunities. Nothing is too small or insignificant. One small town Brooks worked with planted their flag on having the best cinnamon buns in the state. The result? An increase from 100 cars per day to 1,400 cars per day stopping in from the highway just to try the cinnamon buns. With that increase in traffic, an economic engine was brought to life, supporting new business.
  • Third, work to activate your downtown. This means year-round activities, festivals, markets, concerts, and more, giving people a reason to be downtown. Rapid City, South Dakota constructed a public plaza, featuring an ice rink, and used the the revenue from skate rentals to fund additional plaza programming. Local farmers or artists markets and holiday markets work extremely well to bring people downtown and get them spending time and money in support of local businesses. Outdoor, family-friendly movies in the summer are very popular -  you can work with sponsors to offset costs. Outdoor board games, chess sets, and Jenga towers also give people opportunity to spend time downtown with something to do.  In Durham, some of the biggest crowds I’ve seen downtown are the lines at food truck rodeos.
  • Start small and celebrate your successes. It’s a misconception that only large cities can benefit from the downtown renaissance. An additional 100 people coming downtown several days a week is more than enough to spur revitalization. Pick one block or a specific area and reach out to property owners. Share your vision and help them visualize the long-term benefits. Support businesses early on if they need assistance with promotion. Jackson Hole, Wyoming is one example of a successful, unique downtown. In the 1970s the town square was lined with laundromats, drugstores, and vacant storefronts.  It’s now known as a mecca for western-themed art. It took a collaborative vision, time, and patience to slowly transform downtown into a themed destination that attracts visitors and drives the local economy.
  • Finally, build your brand. As part of his presentation Mr. Brooks described how community branding naturally flows out of deliberate placemaking. Branding is the art of differentiation. So be different. And then tell people about it! Tell them who you are and what you are and invite them to experience that with you. The best location branding is built on a unique sense of place – who is there, and what is there to do? Your brand is the feeling that people take with them when they leave your community – and you want it to be a good one. Get your brand’s message out and you will attract residents, businesses, and tourists. When well-executed, these are the things that will bring them back again.
  Photo credit: Roger Brooks International

Photo credit: Roger Brooks International

As planners, we know that economic development is at the top of the list for many cities and towns. Roger Brooks’ presentation illustrates that, by activating downtown with activities and events, you are creating a desirable place for people - this is the essence of placemaking. He shows that even the most budget-limited communities can stimulate economic growth in their downtown and commercial districts. The Summit’s host PTRC offers economic development assistance to communities in their region, from the creation of a high-level regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) plan - Triad Tomorrow - to individualized local planning technical assistance to member governments on a wide variety of economic development topics.

Renaissance Planning believes in holistic solutions that spark action and are rooted in a community’s shared vision for the future.

Renaissance Planning believes in holistic solutions that spark action and are rooted in a community's shared vision for the future. Our strategic planning and citymaking initiative helps communities leverage existing assets to catalyze positive change or to reposition themselves so they can achieve long term community goals. We have high-qualified staff members with expertise in economic development, market analysis, strategic planning, community branding, and more. Together we can rethink possibilities and create innovative, highly individualized placemaking solutions that meet your needs.

  Photo credit: Anson Burtch

Photo credit: Anson Burtch

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