RETHINKING DOWNTOWN ENTERTAINMENT NICHES: Non-Formal Entertainment and Work-as-Entertainment

Thesis: In a contracting economy populated by time-pressured consumers, downtowns need to rethink their entertainment niches to include and foster informal entertainments that are low-cost and convenient.

Most economic development experts have come to agree that entertainment niches are good fits with the assets of many downtowns and such niches have indeed flourished across the nation.

While “formal” entertainment facilities such as concert halls, legitimate theaters, rehabilitated movie theaters, sports stadiums and arenas can generate subsidiary economic benefits and make towns more attractive to residents, visitors and workers, they are often expensive to build and many small and medium downtowns do not have the means or the capacity to develop such large-scale formal entertainments.

In addition, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that most American households began reducing their expenditures for formal entertainments even before the current economic downturn. With the vise closing on the discretionary income of most American households, it is reasonable to assume that entertainment expenditures may be among the first to be reduced. When you factor in the time pressures experienced by the modern household (and detailed in previous reports), formal entertainments seem likely to get further squeezed. In addition, as DANTH noted in our assessment of the future of downtown movie theaters, watching films at home and other home entertainments are eroding the downtown movie theater audience.

The good news? Downtowns of all sizes can develop vibrant niches based on informal entertainments to capture the potential lost audience for these formal entertainments. In a contracting economy populated by time-pressured consumers (research indicates that time –pressed families are increasingly looking for entertainment opportunities that last about 45 minutes rather than the two to four hours usually demanded by formal entertainments), downtowns can compete for time and dollars by providing low- or no-cost entertainments that are close by and do not require long car trips and expensive amounts of gasoline. This entails “rebranding” entertainment as something other than – or in addition to – theaters, arenas and the like. In this scenario, entertainment is “anything that amuses observers.” Reinforcing such informal entertainments can help to bolster the economic health of downtown – its housing, retail, office, and, yes, its formal entertainments.

Public Spaces

Great public spaces provide opportunities for people to 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, lounging patrons watch chess players – as well as each other. In Greenport, NY, a much smaller community, a carousel and waterfront location create a wonderful public space where people can watch and be watched by other people. Other downtowns have fostered entertainment with facilities such as:

  • model boat ponds
  • children’s pony rides
  • tables where people can play chess, checkers, or dominoes
  • Wi-Fi hotspot to access and cruise the Internet on laptops
  • places 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
  • interactive art installations that capture and play with people’s images, make music or move

Visitors will “perform” if the opportunities are there. Informal entertainments are usually public and usually priced right – either free or, when there are fees (e.g., to ride a carousel), affordable. They are also “sticky” activities. Retailers can feed off of the traffic the informal entertainments bring in, as demonstrated by the busy pedestrian traffic on the street next to Mitchell Park in Greenport, NY. Informal entertainments are also liable to be open when the public would want to use them as opposed to theaters, concert halls, etc. Most often they are child-friendly – and therefore mommy-friendly, too.


Often overlooked is the delight and amusement people can derive from simply watching other people do their jobs. In particular, people have shown a great interest in watching craftsman and artists at work. Historical villages such as Williamsburg (VA), Sturbridge (MA) and Old Town (San Diego, CA) have long had many “demonstrations” by blacksmiths, glass blowers, bakers, weavers, etc. The Miami Ballet rehearses in a ground floor studio with a storefront window, which always attracts crowds of passersby and helps build the company’s audience. At the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA – one of the most successful and innovative downtown retail projects in the nation – each artist and craft studio has windows and often open doors, so the public can watch the artists and craftsman as they create. At the Simon Pearce retail store at The Mill in Quechee, VT, visitors to this converted mill/retail location can watch glass being blown, ceramics being thrown and decorated and fabrics being woven, and then enjoy a meal with views of a waterfall.

This posting was condensed from my longer report by Mary Mann. To read the full report and find the complete sources for “Rethinking Downtown Entertainment Niches,” visit

In addition, DANTH has created photo albums relevant to informal entertainments and work-as-entertainment that can be downloaded now, free of charge, from the Internet:

For the album on informal entertainments, visit:

For work as entertainment, visit:

For photos of the Torpedo Factory, visit: