Jean publishes a blog called the Enterprise Corner. It features articles on entrepreneurship, local industry trends, manufacturing news and periodic ‘toolbox’ articles showcasing assistance, incentives and other resources for local businesses.
We recently organized a workshop on Downtown Revitalization for leaders of our smaller communities throughout Yakima County. We were fortunate to have George Sharp, Executive Director of the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau and Sarah Hansen with the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, coordinator of the Washington Main Street Program, share with our group some keys to revitalizing downtown development.
George started with an overview of what makes a successful redevelopment project and really emphasized seeing the community through a visitor's eyes; and even recommends doing a little 'secret shopping' to gauge visual appeal, and customer service. He stressed the importance of having strong partnerships with local agencies and the business community and celebrating small successes.
Sharp also mentioned the importance of communication, especially taking advantage of the internet and technology. He used the example of the dinosaurs throughout Granger, commenting, "How neat would it be to have a kiosk at each one that was set up with a QR code so visitors can use a smart phone to learn more about the community or find out more about each dinosaur?".
Ms. Hansen told us a little bit about the Main Street program - there are programs in 44 states and over 2,000 designated Main Street Communities throughout the United States. "Communities have not only put a huge financial investment into their downtowns", she says, "But downtowns are the heart and soul of a community. They are worth saving." In her work with other communities working to re-energize, redevelop or just retain a core downtown, she noted four essential things to a successful downtown program:
1. Organization: As both George and Sarah mentioned, coordinating all parties and having a sense of organization is essential to drive a revitalization effort. Determining who is doing what, playing upon each groups strengths and getting everyone on the 'same page' is important - if one group wants parking and another doesn't, this could be a problem. Coming to a consensus and arriving at a compromise may be necessary to move forward.
2. Promotion: Both speakers also spoke of the importance of promotion, both within the community and to visitors. Whether it is having a user-friendly, up-to-date website, common signage, a business directory or something unique to the community, promoting events, the downtown and the community as a whole can have positive results as well. Having a common brochure or map of shops and restaurants can invite visitors to stay longer and enjoy lunch at a local cafe, or visit with a specialty shop owner that they might not have otherwise known about. Hansen commented that, "It takes 15 seconds for a customer to see what is in your store", not a lot of time to make a positive first impression.
3. Design: The element of design can involve many factors such as:
4. Economic Restructuring: Many communities struggle to make improvements to downtown infrastructure or signage, and business owners face the same challenges - they would have more customers if they could make investments in their business, but they need more customers (and income) before they can invest in improvements. Sarah talked about some options and incentive programs that downtown programs can take advantage of. For example, the Main Street Program has different tiers of membership and participation levels that offer various levels of non-financial support; cities that are designated Main Street Programs can take advantage of a tax incentive; some cities have received Federal block grant funding to offer building improvement programs; and finally, some cities pursue grants for infrastructure improvements to help offset planned costs.
We were thrilled to be able to offer this high quality and interactive workshop as part of our Entrepreneurial Friendly Cities Program. Both speakers presented some excellent tips for our community leaders. It's important for communities to work together, find out what makes their city special and work on ways that they can revitalize and retain a vibrant, thriving downtown core, which in many of Yakima County's smaller cities, is the lifeline to the community.