Community revitalization: 10 tips to get people to come downtown
Wednesday, September 18, 2019
The heart of any city or town is its downtown area. While the lure of the suburbs has seduced many to put down roots in the outlying areas, there are ways to coax residents back to the city — if not permanently, then at least for shopping, eating, and entertainment. Once they’ve experienced a fun, walkable downtown, they’re more likely to want to live there.
But how can you get people to come downtown? Programming.
“Essentially, programming means creating activities that drive people downtown,” explains Quint Studer, a community revitalization expert; founder of Pensacola, Florida’s Studer Community Institute; and author of “Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America.”
The good news is that programming doesn’t take a lot of money — just a little creativity. For example, Studer says you could have a series of concerts in the park, a local restaurant week, or even a street festival featuring food trucks.
"Here in Pensacola, we have an annual Seafood Festival that attracts over 10,000 people to our downtown area over the course of three days," he says.
Studer has 10 programming tips for get people to come downtown:
1. Create a regularly occurring public event that showcases downtown businesses.
“This makes people aware of merchants, restaurants, musicians, artists, and other service providers such as massage therapists, fitness centers, photographers, and so forth,” Studer says. Examples include an art walk or a farmers’ market.
2. Look for inexpensive ways to drive traffic during the off-season.
“Holiday activities are always popular, and in Pensacola, the Downtown Improvement Board started a First City Lights Festival for the holidays.”
After solidifying the logistics, Studer recommends using the same formula for other types of events, like trick-or treating at downtown stores and restaurants. “Or, you could have a New Year's Eve street party.”
3. Consider permanent structures to accommodate outdoor open markets.
One obvious advantage is shelter during rain, sweltering heat or freezing cold. “This also solidifies significance in the culture of the community.”
4. Develop public gathering places that make people feel welcome.
When people are comfortable, Studer says they’re more likely to stay longer. “Parks, plazas, and public squares are people magnets,” he says. “Outdoor seating is always good, and include well-lit areas for night walking.”
5. Invite street musicians to play on weekends.
Public music provides several benefits. “It adds color and richness to downtown and it lifts people's spirits and may even put them in a shopping mood,” Studer says.
An added bonus is that musicians are grateful for the public exposure, so you’re unlikely to have a shortage of performances.
6. Build a downtown playground or interactive water features.
“Downtowns already attract single and young professionals, so these features are a good way to become more family-friendly,” Studer says.
7. Focus marketing efforts on activities and the feelings they create.
“People are more attracted to things to do than places to go.”
8. Consider a downtown bike share program.
Studer says incorporating this type of program can attract those who want to live healthier and greener lives.
9. As things start to happen, think bigger.
“Pensacola has a multi-use stadium, which is home to the Blue Wahoos, a Double-A baseball team that has drawn more than 300,000 fans per year to the town,” Studer explains. Other examples include a movie theatre or a YMCA.
10. If you can, recruit a university, or part of a university, to move downtown.
“Universities create constant revenue streams, and they continue to do well, even when the economy is doing poorly.” Studer says they often spin off intellectual capital in the community. “Tampa moved its medical school downtown because it's where young people want to be.”
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