Strong Downtown Entertainment Niches

Increasingly, downtown and Main Street commercial districts are finding strength through the establishment or expansion of an entertainment niche. This is happening in communities of all sizes. The theater district around Times Square in Manhattan has long been world famous. At the other end of the scale are communities as small as Weston, VT, with a population of 630, that is home to The Weston Playhouse Theatre Company, the oldest professional theater company in the state. Every summer it presents Broadway plays and musicals in a beautiful white-columned building on the village green. In between are literally hundreds of communities with theaters and performing arts centers for staging plays and concerts such as Carlisle, PA; Rahway, NJ; Englewood, NJ and Rutland, VT.

In most small and medium-sized downtowns, reliance on such formal entertainment venues will result in an entertainment niche that is, perhaps, moderately strong. The problem is that such formal venues, at best, are “lit” a few nights a week and dark during most days. Really strong downtown entertainment niches utilize other resources to attract and amuse visitors throughout most of the day and almost every day of the year.

Informal Entertainments

Entertainment essentially involves people being amused by something. In formal venues, they can be amused by plays, movies, concerts and dances — all requiring some kind of formal organization (a theater company, dance troop, orchestra) that is scheduled and “performs” the entertainment. However, strong downtown entertainment niches rely on the fact that people also are entertained when they are amused or pleased by observing other people — who, at the same time, may be amused by watching them. Great public spaces provide opportunities for “informal entertainments” that occur when people engage in activities that they enjoy and that also interest and amuse nearby people-watchers. Think of the ice skaters drawing the ever-present crowds above the rink in Rockefeller Center. Similarly, in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, you’ll find young men and women seated and watching each other and chess players, who always attract an audience. Greenport, NY, has used a carousel and waterfront location to create a wonderful public space where people can watch and be watched by other people. Other downtowns have fostered entertainment with facilities such as: a model boat pond; a children’s pony ride; a Wi-Fi hotspot to access and cruise the Internet on laptops; a place to catch the sun — a favorite pastime for office workers and young tourists in the spring and summer; places to buy food and eat lunch alfresco; outdoor cafes for sipping coffee and eating snacks; slot car racing for kids, playing bocce for seniors, etc.

Visitors will “perform” if the opportunities are there. To sail a model boat, a suitable pond or pool is required; to sit in the sun and people watch requires an attractive place with benches and chairs to sit on, etc.

The following link takes you to a photo album that illustrates a range of “informal entertainments”

Work As Entertainment

People are often engrossed and entertained by watching other people at work.

Decades ago, the people who brought back “historic” villages, — such as Colonial Williamsburg (VA) and Old Sturbridge Village (MA), — cleverly decided to have people at work, using 18th Century technologies, to educate and entertain visitors. For example, in Colonial Williamsburg visitors can watch 100 masters working in 30 trades. Included are an apothecary, blacksmith, cooper, brickyard, foundry, gunsmith, basket maker, etc.

In Old Town, located in San Diego, CA, visitors can watch glass blowing, wood-working and candle-making, though current technologies may be used.

The Simon Pearce retail store at The Mill in Quechee, Vermont, is perhaps the most brilliantly designed and executed retail project in the United States in a small Main Street setting. It combines a superb site in a renovated old mill located over a waterfall with a diverse assortment of retail goods ranging from blown glass to ceramics and superb furniture. In addition, at this diverse destination you can watch glass being blown, ceramics being thrown and decorated, fabrics being woven and enjoy a meal in a three star restaurant that has attractive water views. The Simon Pearce store at Quechee is a strong destination and lots of people leave there with bags full of merchandise.

At the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA, an historic building has been renovated to provide studios for artists and craftsmen where visitors can watch jewelry being made, pots being thrown, lithographs being made, etc. and have opportunities to purchase the products.

At the Chelsea Market in Manhattan, visitors can be entertained by watching bread making at Amy’s Bread, a working kitchen for Sarabeth’s, a skilled knife sharpener, and people learning to dance the Tango.

People like to watch TV shows outdoors, as attested to by the crowds drawn the Today Show and Good Morning America.

Edward Villella has the Miami City Ballet rehearse in a storefront window, where pedestrians flock to watch the dancers.

Many diners want to sit at chef’s tables or counters where they can watch the cooking process and interact with the kitchen staff. Chef’s tables are often the hardest to book and offer the most expensive menus at topnotch restaurants. The noted French chef Joel Robuchon specifically designed his recent restaurants so most or all of his patrons sit at counters where they can watch their food being prepared.

Double click on the link below and you an access a photo album that illustrates “work as entertainment.”