Review: Revising Downtown Efforts for Post-Recession

Charles Eckenstahler

Review by: Scott Schuler

Downtown Idea ExchangeTrite though it sounds, the wise should be planning for the Post-Recession economy now. The current downturn is dragging on so long that sometimes the thought burrows into our minds that current conditions are normal and things will be like this for a long time. Still, we know from past experience that "this too shall pass," and Charles Eckenstahler suggests approaches for cities and BIDs to take that will prepare their downtowns for the inevitable return to good times.

Downtowns are, of course, marketable commodities and a primary purpose for many BIDs is to implement effective marketing programs to lure investors, developers, homebuyers, renters, retailers, restaurateurs and others. We have learned that downtown can compete by emphasizing its "downtown-ness" rather than mimicking suburban success stories. Mr. Eckenstahler suggests a practical set of strategies that take our circumstances into account. He does not see them as insurmountable but rather as the cold reality that must be utilized as instruments to get downtown back on its feet.

The author strikes a responsive chord with me by first emphasizing market conditions, specifically demographics. When it comes to retail and restaurants I would add the study of psychographics to the mix, since we know that some people are hungry to live, shop or invest downtown, while others aren't but are nevertheless inclined in that direction. Some people are willing to travel downtown occasionally if the experience is unavailable elsewhere. Others won't come downtown for any reason, ever. Understanding the character of downtown's market allows the city to properly assess the extent and character of downtown commercial enterprises. The information becomes an important part of marketing efforts, what Mr. Eckenstahler calls the "community calling card." Build this into a compelling case for your downtown that fuels demand for downtown space and the downtown experience.

The author foresees increased developer interest in downtowns, but a changing market will increase pressure to convert buildings for different uses than those originally intended. This appears likely true but a downtown must have a land use plan that supports the cause of revitalization. While the author rightly points out that plans and zoning regulations may need to be changed to accommodate this, he does not indicate this must occur within an overall understanding of how downtown uses must be distributed to prevent doing damage to the overall revitalization scheme. In principal, the author appears to be right in this regard, along with his recommendation that cities refine the entitlement process to a more pro-business model. So often we hear developers and tenants alike telling us that cities claiming they want to revitalize are in fact working against this goal with onerous public approval policies that discourage investment and construction.

The author raises an issue that will cost money to the cities and BIDs. Developers may become more interested in downtown properties but they will need more incentives to get their projects going. It is axiomatic in most recovering downtowns, especially in the retail and restaurant world, that initial deals must be incentivized in some way. A downtown is in competition with other metro area locations or with other downtowns, and prospective investors will be confronting attractive offers requiring some sweetening of the pot. In times of recession they may be hard to justify, but remember we are preparing for the Post-Recession economy and so must have things in place awaiting this recovery.

Lastly, Mr. Eckenstahler recognizes in so many words that downtown is becoming a competitive residential choice for certain demographic (actually, certain psychographic) groups. He actually pulls up a little short on this - it is a cultural change that wise downtown managers will acknowledge and embrace. Too often we hear downtown managers bemoaning the outlook for their districts to prosper. The culture itself is telling us the time is right for vigorous downtowns if cities can learn how to play the game. The article's straightforwardness and pithiness does not diminish its importance, most notably the central theme that the Recession will end. Conditions will not be exactly as they were before the Recession hit and the most proactive managers will be better able to compete against those who are not.

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