Readers of my blog know that I’m an unabashed patriot. I love my country, while I’m not always in love with my government, and this time of year my thoughts turn very close to home. Lately, many of us both professionally and personally are thinking, talking, worrying and dreaming (or bad-dreaming!) about the economy. The good news is there is some good news, at least at local levels.
Today’s entry is an article from the National Main Street Center at the National Trust for Historic Preservation on some trends:
By Linda S. Glisson | From Main Street News | June 22, 2011 |
Are entrepreneurs growing on Main Street? How is Main Street doing compared to big-box stores and strip malls? Do people want to live downtown?
Every year, the National Trust Main Street Center conducts a survey to discover the latest trends on Main Streets nationwide. This year, the picture, as shown by the responses of 500 local Main Street programs, is one of high energy in a slow economy, with lots of innovation, ranging from strategic uses of social media to cool “green” projects. Here are some of the major trends.
Strong business growth. Despite the cash crunch that is preventing small businesses from getting needed financing to expand, Main Street districts reported surprisingly strong growth in new businesses after a big drop last year. More than 5,000 businesses opened on the Main Streets of responding communities, nearly equaling the 10-year peak reached in 2006.
Competing with the strip. Half of all Main Street programs reported that the economic health of their commercial districts was on par with nearby communities. Even more impressive, however, is that 35 percent are doing better than surrounding commercial centers, and nearly 30 percent reported the closure of at least one big-box store in their area.
New entrepreneurs. Nearly 50 percent reported new entrepreneurs in their districts. From boomers to women to those under 30, Main Street is attracting new business owners, many from outside the community. In Woodville, Mississippi, the Main Street program’s track record in heritage tourism and preservation inspired a couple from New Orleans to buy a building on the courthouse square. As a tax credit project ¾ the Woodville Loft and Studios ¾ will soon bring 12 storefronts and condos to this small town. And in a great homecoming story, a 21-year old native of Sidney, Nebraska, came back after college with the dream of opening her own business. So Historic Downtown Sidney connected her with a retiring business owner, and helped with her first six months rent. This way, the Main Street program found a way to re-energize an old business, while creating a future for a new entrepreneur… one of its own. And in the northwest, Oregon City Main Street launched a video marketing and recruitment campaign for creative professionals who are interested in growing their business in a funky downtown setting. Their campaign kicked off last year and brought in eight new businesses in the first few months.
Living downtown. Housing on Main Street seems to be gaining steam as a niche for historic commercial districts. A recent National Association of Realtors Survey shows that 77% of homebuyers are seeking central locations with the type of pedestrian-friendly features found on Main Street. This year’s Trends Survey confirmed that demand for housing might be outstripping current developer interest. In Nacogdoches, Texas, for example, the Main Street manager gets constant inquiries from people looking for that downtown lifestyle. Only 8 housing units are currently under construction, but the manager says the downtown market could easily absorb 50 more this year.
“Hot Green.” Where are the hottest innovations right now? Where are young people focusing their attention? What types of organizations are gaining members? The answer: if it’s green, it’s growing! The sustainable communities movement is laying the foundation for a major shift in the way we use land and other resources and the way we plan cities. Sustainable innovations to watch out for include form-based codes, energy codes, and “location efficiency.” What’s that you say? A new study by EPA confirms what we in the preservation field have suspected all along: that where we construct our buildings has just as big an impact as how we construct, in terms of energy consumption. This new paradigm is called “location efficiency”, and is beginning to make the case for dense, walkable districts, such as Main Street. For the first time, guidelines and funding priorities may shift in favor of preservation and Main Streets, simply because of our “efficient” locations!
The bottom line for this year, Main Street is not only holding its own as the economy slowly recovers; it is moving ahead with great energy, optimism, and innovation.
From UW Extension’s Bill Ryan and Chuck Law
There are compelling reasons to be optimistic about the ability of Wisconsin’s small
town business districts to rebound from the economic downturn, according to experts
from the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
“Downtowns can take advantage of consumer, economic and environmental trends that direct activity back to their central business districts,” says Bill Ryan, community
development specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. “While downtowns are all different, opportunities are out there.”
According to Ryan, downtowns have historically met important needs, such as housing, office and retail space and entertainment. Unlike shopping centers developed for
national retail chains (which are now experiencing vacancies), downtowns serve different
functions that allow one sector to rise even as another declines. “Many downtowns have recession-proof draws,” says Chuck Law, community planning and design specialist with UW-Extension.
“While high-priced restaurants and live theatre might be patronized less in a recession,
farmers’ markets and children’s museums will still be on the list of local outings. And many
downtowns’ focus on education, health care and government services further insulates
them from consumer spending swings.”
Downtown housing continues to be an important component of the retail mix. While condo development and sales have slowed, the market for rental housing is strong in many markets. Long-term, demographic trends remain favorable for downtown living given both older and younger people’s growing preference for urban, amenity-rich living.
Ryan also points out that downtowns are benefiting from a growing interest in supporting
local economies. In many cases, consumers are focusing more on value than price,
factoring in the cost of travel and the service of local retailers. Personal attention, unique
products, and outstanding service and support– often the hallmark of downtown retailers– will continue to attract new customers seeking a local economic connection.
Supporting downtown retailers can even be considered “green,” Ryan says.
–Downtowns are centrally located and convenient and trends indicate they will become
even more accessible with better bus and light rail systems. Local governments are
paying attention to strengthening public transportation systems with support from
the federal government, which is seeking to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
–Volatile gas prices are causing people to rethink their driving and how much fuel they
can save by working or doing business with establishments conveniently located downtown.
–Environmental benefits accrue from reusing and improving structures rather than planning new development. Significant opportunities exist to retrofit existing buildings with green technology. Both energy-efficient improvements and weatherization of housing
and public buildings are included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of
2009. While new construction has slowed, the remodeling industry has been less affected
by the economic downturn. More and more communities are finding creative uses
for existing buildings. Support for entrepreneurs is another plus provided by central business districts.
“Downtowns are places that truly support entrepreneurship,” says Ryan. “The environment provides social and business interaction, diversity, authenticity and amenities that appeal to people with various talents.” And families are turning more to pedestrian-friendly activities close to home, frequenting local libraries, museums, theaters, parks, athletic facilities, civic buildings, schools, coffee shops and retail establishments for entertainment.
“Downtowns offer a ‘sense of place’ that is increasingly important to residents,” Law
notes. “The community’s natural, social and cultural amenities, places to worship, dine,
shop, and relax, and the histories and memories associated with those elements, are often
found in and around downtown.”
Ryan advises communities to take full advantage of their downtowns’ competitive
strengths. “Community leaders can build upon downtowns’ diversified mix of uses,
contributions to the local economy, promotion of sustainable development, support for
entrepreneurship, and sense of place.”
For more on UW-Extension’s work to support and revitalize Wisconsin’s downtowns,
go to http://www.uwex.edu/ces/cced/downtowns/index.cfm
the old Claude Allouez Bridge connecting George Street on the east side of De Pere across the Fox River to Main Avenue on the west side isn’t there. It has been replaced by a new 4 lane bridge from a double lane round-about at Wisconsin & Broadway on the east side crossing the Fox to connect with Main Avenue on the west side.
What? That happened over 2 years ago?
Really? Because GoogleMaps and occasionally MapQuest and vehicle GPS system report that you are in the middle of the river not on a large bridge! GoogleMaps had been corrected but has reverted back to the old bridge again.
Don’t you love technology? (okay, yes, if you know me, you know what a techno-geek I am but when tech goes hay-wire? Mamma Mia!!) Thanks to Ryan Jennings at xo Fitness in De Pere, which is at the base site of the *former* bridge approach, so I’ll take his word for the lack of concrete out his window as opposed to the technology yelling “danger!” at me.
In other news of interest for downtown businesses, this comes to me from JD Milburn, Small Business Specialist, with Wisconsin Main Street:
Trends in Downtown Development
Safety and crime prevention encourage downtown visits. Strategies that are used include:
- Security surveillance equipment
- Public advice on using public transportation safely
- Environmental design that deters crime, such as improving street lighting
- Positioning of 911 boxes in the streets and other areas
- Security guards
- Ambassadors, which give people important information, such as directions
Arts districts – with their galleries, cinemas, opera houses, artist housing, and theaters – are emerging as an important revitalization tool and are continuing to grow in popularity in downtowns of all sizes. (note: this feeds quite well into our public art project we are planning in De Pere for next year! Come get involved! Next meeting is November 20th at noon here at the Chamber!)
Mixed-use downtown developments that include retail, residential, and entertainment, create downtowns that are busy around the clock all week long.
Retailers are showing a renewed interest in central business districts (CBDs), due to the potential size of untapped markets.
Large scale projects are developed to stimulate lagging areas. For example the new convention center in Washington, DC is expected to generate $14 million in economic stimulus each year.
Waterfront development utilizes neglected or under-utilized downtown waterfronts to provide recreation, business, commercial, and residential areas. Baltimore’s once desolate Inner Harbor has been developed into a thriving commercial and tourist area.
The redevelopment and preservation of railroad stations to attract business near the stations and help to revive surrounding downtown areas.
Some communities are moving away from developing large projects such as sports stadiums (attracting people only on game days) towards smaller-scale projects.
Communities develop open space to create improve the quality of life in urban cores.
Hotel construction in downtown areas meets the growing demand for accommodation from people on business, and also acts as a spur encouraging tourists.
Integrating transportation and land use in downtown areas produces a more efficient transportation system whilst reducing congestion and pollution:
- Creating and extending cycle routes
- Developing more integrated mass transit systems
- Building pedestrian friendly streetscapes
Market research has become a key component of downtown developments. Understanding local markets helps to decide which potential projects will meet local demand and receive support.
Information technology businesses are moving into downtown offices with large open plans to nurture team work and collaboration.
Downtowns have also developed fiber optic infrastructures to support IT businesses. Maps of fiber optic cable help businesses locate near to fiber cable in downtown areas.
Funding for downtown projects has become more widely available and easier to obtain, due to public, media and government interest shown in CBDs.
Benchmarking and Evaluating Downtown Development Programs
Downtowns need to be diverse, dynamic, and livable spaces. To evaluate a downtown development initiative means taking all these components into consideration. Downtown redevelopment includes both physical and perceptual changes.
Since downtown development requires many partners and affects many people, neighborhoods, and businesses, evaluators need to look at who is involved and the nature of their relationships, as well as what gets done.
Many cities and towns have established downtown development strategic plans. Since each community has its distinct vision for its downtown, requiring different packages of programs and investments, it will be hard to make direct comparisons between community efforts. Evaluation of such a complex undertaking, therefore, should focus on the degree to which communities have achieved their goals.
- Number of jobs created/retained
- Number of housing units developed
- Cost per job created/retained
- Vacancy rates for retail and office space
- Absorption rates for retail and office space
- Quality of available space (ratio of A, B and C office buildings)
- Crime rates
- Number of positive press hits on downtown activities, improvements
- Tourism rates (number of hotel nights, conference attendance)
- Culture (attendance at performances, museums, special events)
- Private-sector leverage
- Percent of jobs held by local residents/low income persons
- Average salary of jobs created
- Spinoff private investment