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Roger Brooks on Bringing Downtowns Back

Downtown's Cruise-In events have centered around the new Horace Blackman Park where attendees enjoy offerings from food vendors and downtown restaurants.

By Al Hooper, Executive Director

I’ve always thought the best thing to know about any given topic is to know some really smart people in the subject area. Downtown development is no different, and Roger Brooks is a highly regarded expert on downtowns and attracting people. I invited Roger to speak at the 2012 Small Town Development conference here in Michigan and developed a lasting relationship with him. Here’s what Roger said about three steps to bringing downtown to life in his April 23, 2013 blog, and we’re doing well in two of the three with Blackman Park and our restaurants. A year around market would be nice!

Here are 3 “First Steps” to Bringing Your Downtown Back to Life:

  1. Start by developing a plaza area, a central gathering place. Then use it – program it with activities, events and vendors. Make sure there is something to do. This will start bringing people downtown.
  2. Add a permanent, year round public market – and make sure it is open during evening hours. Farmers markets are HUGE right now, with growing demand for local and organic food, and a market can provide opportunities for more than just selling produce. Entertainment, gifts, and events will help round out the dynamic experience of a great market.
  3. Start recruiting restaurants. Food is the number one draw to downtowns, after activities and events. Get people coming downtown, and add in some great restaurants, and more people will follow.

How do you deal with the fact that people aren’t downtown now? It is a bit of a cliché, but its truth holds – if you build it, they will come. We’ve seen it everywhere we go. If you give people a reason to go downtown, they will look for places they can spend time and money.

Focus on after work hours and weekends to start. It is critical that there be things to do when people are out and about, enjoying their leisure time. Once people are downtown, they will start looking for places to eat, play and spend time. The retail will follow. Great businesses to start with include:

  • A couple of coffee shops
  • A small bookstore that also sells magazines, floral arrangements, and some gifts. It should have seating areas and should sell coffee, tea or drinks and small food items.
  • A deli (for the lunchtime crowd)
  • A baker or butcher – these are very popular and are coming back to downtowns
  • A stationary store
  • Then a couple sit-down restaurants that serve inexpensive meals that will attract people downtown for all three meals. We’re not necessarily talking fine dining, but a great gathering place.
  • Invite food trucks and similar vendors downtown to get it all started.

If your downtown is faltering (and so many of them are) it can seem like a daunting task to get things turned around. But we’ve seen it time and time again – if you give people a reason to come, they do. People are looking for great places to hang out and feel connected to their community. Activities and events in a central gathering place, a permanent market and some great places to eat are a great way to get started. They’ll attract people to your downtown and get the ball rolling – and once it starts, you’ll be surprised at how much momentum will build and how quickly that ball will fly.

Posted on April 23, 2013 by Roger Brooks,