Contact: N. David Milder, Editor The ADRR — The American Downtown Revitalization Review 718-805-9507 [email protected]
THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN DOWNTOWN REVITALIZATION REVIEW (THE ADRR)
There currently is no real professional journal for the downtown revitalization field. For many years, that has been strongly lamented by many of the field’s best thinkers. To remedy that situation, a band of accomplished downtown revitalization professionals are creating The ADRR. It will be a free online publication, appearing four times each year. The target date for the debut issue is now set for the June 1-15, 2020 timeframe, with the second issue aimed for the Sept 7-14, 2020 timeframe.
This ADRR is intended to be a lean and mean operation, based totally on the availability of free online resources and the time, energy and elan contributed by its authors, advisory and editorial board members, and its editor.
How to Subscribe to The ADRR
Those interested can now visit The ADRR’s website, www.theadrr.com , where, on the home page, they can sign up to become subscribers. This enrollment places the subscriber on a MailChimp mailing list so that they can receive New Issue Alerts (see below).
How Issues of The ADRR Will Be Distributed.
New Issue Alerts, containing the Tables of Contents of issues and links to their downloadable pdfs of articles are sent to subscribers via a MailChimp email blast and posted to the ADRR’s website. Each issue’s pdf files initially will be stored in a folder in ND Milder’s Dropbox account from which they can be downloaded. Subscribers can download only those articles they want to read and whenever they want to read them. The ADRR also can be found via Google searches.
The Content We Are Aiming For. Only manuscripts about major downtown needs, issues and trends will be considered for publication. They will be thought pieces and not just reports about a downtown’s programs and policies that its leaders want to brag about. Articles must have broad salience and their recommendations broad applicability within the field. The “voice” of The ADRR will be anti-puff, and very factual, evidence driven, though not dully academic. Discussions of problems and failures will be considered as relevant as success stories if, as so often is the case, something substantial can be learned from them. The ADRR will not avoid controversial issues.
Also, the focus of The ADRR will not be overwhelmingly on our largest most urban downtowns, but also provide a lot of content and relevant assistance to those in our small and medium sized communities, be they in suburban or rural areas.
Who Will Write the Articles?
Hopefully, they will be from people in a broad range of occupations – downtown managers and leaders, municipal officials, academics, developers, landlords, businesspeople, consultants, etc. — who have significant downtown related knowledge and experience.
Curated Articles and Wildflowers. Initially, the ADRR will solicit articles to prime the content pump. Once The ADRR is up and running some articles will continue to be solicited on topics deemed a high priority by the editorial board members. Each board member can select a topic to curate an article on and seek the author(s) to write them. However, there still will be a continual traditional general call for submissions (wildflowers) focused on subjects selected by their authors. All submissions, curated or wildflower, must demonstrate sufficient merit to warrant publication in The ADRR. All submitted articles will be reviewed by board members. We hope to see many submissions!
Article Length and Author Responsibilities.
There will be short reads and long reads. Articles of 1,500 to 5,000 words will be considered. Multi-part articles of exceptional merit and salience will also be considered. What counts is their quality, not their length. Authors must have their articles thoroughly proofread prior to submission. Poorly proofed manuscripts will be rejected. Guidelines for submissions may be found on The ADRR website.
Published four times per year, with a minimum of 5 articles in each issue. Given that this is an online publication, from a production perspective, the number and length of the articles is not a particular problem. However, from an editorial and content management perspective, the number of articles and their lengths can quickly become burdensome.
How It Will Be Organized.
The ADRR will be published by an informal group for its first year, with no person or group having ownership.
Editor. During the ADRR’s first year, N. David Milder has volunteered to serve as its editor.
The Advisory/Editorial Board :
Jerome Barth, Fifth Avenue Association
Michael J Berne, MJB Consulting
Laurel Brown, UpIncoming Ventures
Katherine Correll, Downtown Colorado, Inc.
Dave Feehan, Civitas Consulting
Bob Goldsmith, Downtown NJ, and Greenbaum Rowe
Stephen Goldsmith, Center for the Living City
Nicholas Kalogeresis, The Lakota Group
Kris Larson, Hollywood Property Owners Alliance.
Paul R. Levy, Center City District, Philadelphia
Beth Anne Macdonald, Commercial District Services
Andrew M. Manshel, author
N. David Milder, DANTH, Inc
John Shapiro, Pratt Institute
Norman Walzer, Northern Illinois University
Articles in our first issue that will be published in June 2020
Michael Berne, MJB Consulting, Working Title, ” Bringing Downtown Retail Back After COVID-19”
Roberta Brandes Gratz, “Malls of Culture.”
Andrew M. Manshel, “Is ED Really a Problem?”
N. David Milder, DANTH, Inc., “Developing a New Approach to Downtown Market Research Projects – Part 1.”
Aaron M. Renn, Heartland Intelligence, “Bus vs. Light Rail.”
Michael Stumpf, Place Dynamics, “Using Cellphone Data to Identify Downtown User Sheds”.
The Spotlight: “Keeping Our Small Merchants Open Through the COVID-19 Crisis”
Katherine Correll, Downtown Colorado, Inc.
David Feehan, Civitas Consulting
Isaac Kremer, Metuchen Downtown Alliance
Errin Welty, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
Many of our most successful large cities are also ailing and
fragile in very essential ways, whether or not their leaders and stakeholders are
open to acknowledging that reality.
Yes, by many economic measures, lots of our major cities
such as NYC, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC,, and especially their
CBDs, are more successful than ever. The value of their real estate continues
to soar. As do their employment levels and their ability to attract large
numbers of the creative/knowledge workers that are so essential to economic
growth and success. Affluent people are eager to live in and near their
flourishing downtowns. Pedestrian flows are strong. Tourist are flocking to
their arts, entertainment and cultural venues as well as their hotels,
restaurants and shops. Their streets are active at least 18 hours a day.
Yet, in 2017, Richard Florida published a book with a very
revealing title: ” The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality,
Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do about It.” Increasingly, the core areas of our major
cities have become places where only the very wealthy can live and play. The
middle class can still work there, but even those with $1 million to spend on
housing too often cannot find desirable units.
Affordable housing is a major issue in these cities. Dinners for two in
their restaurants can easily cost hundreds of dollars. While movie tickets may
cost about $9 to $13, admission at their museums can run about $25, and tickets
to prime arts event venues can run over $125 in the primary market, and over a thousand
in the secondary market. Their downtowns are no longer everyone’s neighborhood,
but devoted to very wealthy locals and affluent tourists. If NYC is any
indicator, half of the most expensive new residential units are unsold, and the
other half of the units are occupied by part-time residents, and usually vacant.1 For
most city residents, their city’s downtown is no longer really theirs.
Added to the financial and spatial equity issues are the very significant return of problems of public disorder, such as homeless vagrancy and aggressive panhandling. The situation in downtown San Francisco has grown quite out of hand, with many sidewalks being blocked and pedestrians forced to run a narrow gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers, reclining/sitting vagrants, litter and human feces.2 Similar, if less egregious situations can be found in several other large West Coast cities. Closer to home, one BID manager in Manhattan recently told me that dealing with problems of disorder was now his organization’s highest priority and that this also is the case with many other BIDs in the borough. Center City in Philadelphia is also making a renewed effort to deal with the problems of disorder.3 Those of us who were around to see how the problems of disorder strangled downtowns during the 1970s and 1980s are very concerned about these flare ups of the problems of disorder. Will their resurgence strengthen? Have the tools we used to successfully cope with them in the recent past now lost their efficacy? Do local politicians and public at large have the required political will to do what must be done?
Also, the very success of our downtowns is
causing several other problems. One that goes unnoticed until it isn’t, is that
our pedestrian densities often have reached such high levels that they have
significant adverse impacts on the pleasure of walking, i.e., they diminish an
area’s walkability. Measures to relieve auto congestion have in some places,
e.g., Midtown Manhattan, provided some pedestrian decompression by converting
traffic lanes to pedestrian use. The potentially disruptive impacts of small
vehicles – e-scooters, e-bikes, delivery robots, etc. — and AVs are on a rapidly closing-in
horizon. For all their wealth, many downtown retail corridors in these
superstar downtowns have surprisingly high vacancy rates reaching sometimes
Creative Job Growth and Affordable Housing.
For some time now, economic development professionals have known that affordable housing is a serious and growing problem, especially those active in our large and successful cities – see table above.
Nationally, the relationship between the strong growth of high paying
high tech employment and the seriousness of the affordable housing problem was
also well-known. Large increases in highly paid creative workers leads to
rising housing prices. The new housing products sparked by that increased demand
will be largely upscale market rate. The emergence of the affordability issue
suggests that one way or another the demand of upscale creatives is pushing up
the costs of housing in what were middle income units.
The situation in San Francisco has already reached such severity that $1 million might buy you a home constructed from a former cargo shipping crate. An attempt even was made to smother office growth in the city in order to shift more resources to housing development. Several high tech firms have committed billions to solving this problem: Google will invest $1billion, as will Facebook, and Apple recently said it would commit $2.5 billion to the issue.4 I doubt they would be making these investments if the problem was not very serious.
Seattle shows what can happen to the housing market when there is a very large infusion of creative jobs by just one firm. By 2017 Amazon had eight million square feet of office space, occupying 19% of Seattle’s office space, and tens of thousands of office workers. While other major national high tech firms were also adding employees, an article by Mike Rosenberg and Ángel González in the Settle Times proclaimed: “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s biggest company town.”5 It’s huge presence and growing workforce had fostered the following conditions:
By 2017, apartment rents were 63 percent higher
than in 2010, and Seattle became the
fastest-growing city in the country.
Home costs rose faster in Seattle than anywhere
in the nation, doubling in five years, and pushing the middle class to
surrounding, less expensive towns.
Seattle had the nation’s third-highest
concentration of mega-commuters — people traveling at least 90 minutes each way
to work. Their numbers grew 72 percent
in five years.
Buses were more packed than ever, and lines running
along the Amazon campus often were standing-room-only during rush hour. Metro
drivers at times have to leave commuters waiting outside an Amazon office
because their buses were full. Local officials even added buses to accommodate
the crush of Amazon interns that arrived during the summer.6
Even the mere announcement of a big development project that will bring
thousands of new creative workers into an area can raise prices by attracting real
estate speculators and convincing homeowners to keep their homes off of the
market so they can benefit more fully from the rising values of their homes.
For example, Amazon’s impact on the housing market in and around Arlington, VA,
it’s remaining HQ2 town, was swift, starting with the announcement of the deal.
year after the deal, with no construction completed and much not even started, Redfin
reported home prices in Arlington were up nearly 18% year-over-year. That far
outpaced the 2.7% price change in the D.C. metro area.7
Will New Expensive Housing for the New Creative Workers Help Make Housing More Affordable for Middle and Lower Income Households? One possible counter argument that has been offered by some colleagues is that the expensive new housing triggered by the new creative job holders will increase overall supply and thus help lower housing costs throughout the city. That has the prima facie validity of reflecting very basic economic principles, and there are some recent economic studies that at first blush seem to support that argument. However, I think that when you look more closely at their analyses and conclusions, their ability to really support this top down path to housing affordability becomes far less certain.
Evan Mast, in an interesting recent study using migration data found
Migrants “to new central city multifamily
buildings come from neighborhoods with slightly lower incomes, and migrants
into these neighborhoods come from areas with still lower incomes, and so
“Using a simulation model, (he found) that 100
new market-rate units ultimately create 70 vacancies in middle-income
neighborhoods. New construction opens the housing market in low-income areas by
reducing demand. A simulation model suggests that building 100 new market-rate
units sparks a chain of moves that eventually leads 70 people to move out of
neighborhoods from the bottom half of the income distribution, and 39 people to
move out of neighborhoods from the bottom fifth. This effect should occur
within five years of the new units’ completion.
These openings should lower prices, but the
effect may be small in the least expensive areas where prices are close to the
marginal cost of providing housing” (Italics added).8
Looking at Mast’s findings from the perspective of cities with severe
housing affordability problems, the issue of the marginal cost of providing
housing raises questions. In these cities the problem is precisely that the
marginal cost of providing housing is beyond what middle income households can
afford, not just the lowest income households. Moreover, the new units are not just
market rate, but relatively high market rate. Consequently, one might reasonably ask if these cities were
looked at separately, would “the effect” also be found weaker further up on the
income scale? My reasoning suggests the answer is very probably yes.
In another very interesting recent study, Liyi Liu, Doug McManus, and
Elias Yannopoulos at Freddie Mac looked at filtering, “the process by which properties, as they age,
depreciate in quality and hence price and thus tend to be purchased by
lower-income households. This is the primary mechanism by which competitive
markets supply low-income housing.”9 They found
“(T)here is a wide range of filtering rates both
across and within metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) for owner-occupied properties.
Notably, in some markets, properties ‘filter up’ to higher-income households”
“After 40 years, average real incomes increased
by 12% for Washington, DC (implying an average annual increase of 0.28%) and by
14.5% for Los Angeles (implying an average annual increase of 0.34%). Thus,
properties in these markets were filtering up to higher- income households as
homes aged. It is not surprising that these markets are ones with affordable
housing challenges (italics added). In contrast, Detroit and Chicago show
rapid downward filtering rates. For Detroit, the income index level drops 34.5%
over 40 years (implying a rate of filtering of -1.1% per year). In Chicago the
income index level drops by 23.7% over 40 years (implying a rate of filtering
of -0.67% per year).” 10
These findings suggest the dynamics of residential real estate in
markets with affordable housing challenges diverge from what basic economic
theory might suggest. The size of the upper income housing deficit then is an important
determinant of the degree to which new upscale housing just goes to upscale
residents or does add to units filtering down to less affluent households. If
the deficit is large, then there are more units filtering up, not down. If the
deficit is small, and more easily met by new construction, additional units can
filter down. Reducing large deficits require comparably large amounts of appropriate
new housing, and until that is achieved, unit filtration will be upward in
direction. It is reasonable to conclude that the entry of
25,000 new high income workers into an area probably will significantly increase
the upscale housing deficit. It is sort of like a garter snake trying to
swallow a bullfrog – it can be digwested, but the snake is literally stretched to
the breaking point and very exposed to its predators. What happened in Seattle
and Arlington provides some evidence to support that conclusion. In Arlington.
just Amazon’s announcement significantly raised housing prices and reduced the
number of units for sale.
Another more general relevant national trend is the fact that while
the number of middle-income households has shrunk over the past decade, the
number of more affluent households has increased (the number of low income
households also increased).
To my mind, the above suggests that in our cities where affordability
is a serious problem, a very large amount of new upscale housing is needed for
them to reduce price pressures in less expensive areas and reduce the upward
filtration of units. Moreover, the constant recruitment/creation of new highly
paid creative workers only adds to the amount of new upscale housing that must
be built in order to foster general housing affordability. Large upscale
housing deficits, by reversing the normal downward filtration of units, creates a significant demand for the construction
of so-called “affordable” units. That demand is real and felt, and politically
can take on a life if its own. Local citizens may not want to wait, at best,
five years for affordability to trickle down from the top, or even much longer
when the upscale housing deficit is large and not quickly being reduced.
Billionaire Row type housing projects that are at the top of the price
ladder with units that are either largely unsold or usually unoccupied do not
help reduce the upscale housing deficit. They are not targeted to be purchased
by the creative/knowledge workers. To the contrary, they make it more difficult
by absorbing desirable development sites and diverting investment funds and
entrepreneurial talents from the construction of the more needed “normal”
The situation in Seattle suggests there is some merit to my analysis. After
Amazon shifted its office growth to Bellevue, 15,000 new jobs, the growth of
housing costs in the city plateaued, though costs did not decline. Successful
downtowns and their nearby neighborhoods may need to be sure that they, like
the snake eating the bullfrog, have fully digested any large influx of highly
paid workers so they can move on again to ingest more creative/knowledge
Furthermore, this is perhaps the regional creative job growth path
that other ailing successful cities should follow until their upscale housing
deficits are sufficiently reduced.
Also, while the top down, trickle down approach may sound good to
economic theorists, from a politician’s point of view it’s probably useless. It
has no immediate concrete visibility. It’s more like mumbo jumbo economics for a
whole lot of their voters. It takes too much time to produce real, observable affordable
housing units on a sufficient scale.
In the last few weeks I confronted an intellectual jolt that
made me ask some very basic questions about economic development, the field I
have been professionally active in for over 40 years. The causes of this jolt
were the discussions in the traditional media and on LinkedIn about Amazon’s
Long Island City 2HQ project and the opening of the huge $25 billion Hudson
Yards project on the West Side of Manhattan’s Midtown CBD. The merits of both
projects have been the subjects of significant debate – especially with Amazon
reneging on the deal. The key concepts on these debates seemed to be:
JOBS. For the Amazon deal, jobs seemed to be the
be all and end all of all of the pro-Amazon arguments.
THE DESIRABILITY OF HUGE NEW EXPENSIVE PROJECTS.
For the advocates of both projects, the size and expense of both projects made
them worthy, and the fact that they would attract the intellectually and
financially blessed added greatly to their luster.
INCENTIVES. Criticisms of both projects were
heavily cloaked in attacks of the large financial incentive packages given,
both directly and indirectly to Amazon and Related, while proponents seemed to
argue that direct incentives had no real cost – after all, no Brinks trucks
were being driven up to the City’s treasury to take away billions in cash.
What jolted me was that these discussions
about big, important projects seemed to be vapid because they were missing so
many really essential points. Indeed, this vapidity suggested that we, in the
economic development field, had forgotten how to answer an elemental question
and then use that answer in our professional activities. That key question is:
Why do we do economic development? What is it supposed to achieve? I have been
to countless professional conferences, but I don’t remember too much attention
ever being given to that question.
Are Jobs a Means or
Jobs certainly are important. However, there are good jobs
and bad jobs. Economic development should seek to maximize good jobs. Economic
development should also try to provide good jobs for those who need them. All
this would seem to be part of our field’s conventional wisdom. Amen.
Lots of Jobs Can Have Big Impacts That Can Be Good Or Bad,
That Can Help Or Hinder Reaching Important Societal and Political Goals. Unfortunately, not all jobs are good ones. The
US, today, has an incredibly low unemployment rate. But, how many of those
plentiful jobs pay a livable wage? How many people are holding several of those
jobs because none of them alone pays enough to support their households?
Good jobs are also the means to many important socio-economic
and political ends. They can enable system residents to have a better quality
of life, enable a more equitable distribution of incomes, and reduce the extent
and depth of socio-economic frictions. Unfortunately, what many people may
consider good jobs, may also have bad impacts on such things as the environment,
public health, housing demand and prices, commercial space demand and prices,
stress on mass transit. It is precisely at this “system” level where the suasion
of the arguments of the advocates for gobs of more jobs are most likely to fade
or outright fail. It is also why such discussions are not likely to occur or be
given import. It is also why questions such as this are almost never asked: how
can 25,000 very high paying jobs in one relatively small area be absorbed without
huge disruptions in the housing, market, labor market, public transportation,
traffic congestion, etc.?
Jobs Are More Important to Some Economic Developers Than
Others. The centrality of jobs to economic development practitioners
varies. For those who are concerned about downtowns and Main Streets, jobs are
not a key concern, save when they need to demonstrate the positive impacts of a
new project. Job creation and development are much more salient to economic
developers who are concerned about workforce growth and development, and those
active in obtaining project approvals and funding from government agencies and
Jobs Have Become an Important Concern Because We Are Told
We Can Accurately Estimate Them. Concern about jobs is also highly embedded
in our politics and in our assessments of the economic impacts of large
projects such as new buildings, stadiums and arenas, arts and entertainment
venues, etc. This is facilitated by the ease with which input-output models can
generate estimates about how many jobs such projects can generate.
Alas, the use of these I-O models often reminds me of a
story the famous French sociologist Raymond Aron once told a seminar at Cornell
about the former president of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing. When taking a
university exam and asked where the Seine was deepest as it courses through
Paris, d’Estaing’s reply was something like: “Under which bridge? I am sure I
can make a convincing argument for each one.” Similarly, these I-O models seem
to have never met a project for which they cannot find huge positive
benefits. I would argue that the
importance given to new jobs in many project assessments is, to an important
degree, a result of the ability of I-O models to churn out positive employment
impacts. I have come to treat the indirect and induced estimates of the I-O
models with considerable wariness and skepticism. Reviewing them I keep in mind
the axiom Garbage In, Garbage Out.
The Incentives Tie-In. Across the nation, scads of
financial incentives have been given away for more new jobs, usually at an
$XX/job rate . That was, indeed, at the heart of all of Amazon’s 2HQ deals.
But, experience, has shown that far too often those jobs don’t show up or
quickly disappear or are not the type pf jobs promised. For example, Amazon’s
hoopla that 2HQ jobs will have a median salary of $150,000 seems to be very far
from true for its new Nashville location.
Deal-Making. In my years in the field I have met an awful lot of people for whom economic development is about making deals. These deals usually involve using public financial incentives to produce projects. A promised primary benefit of most of these projects is lots of more jobs. Too often the content of the deal and its probable impacts are not as important as the making of the deal.
Suggested Take Away. Jobs are undeniably important,
but also a means to larger and more important economic development ends. We
must not lose sight of those ends. Moreover, jobs, even those considered “good”
ones, can have impacts beyond those on the job-holders that are beneficial or
harmful. Those impacts are important to know and assess, though too often never
Jobs are often presented as the means by which the larger
community benefits from a major project. Just knowing the number of jobs or
even their pay ranges are really insufficient to assess a project’s real
impacts on the larger community.
Are “More”, “Bigger”
and “More Expensive” Always Better?
Also embedded in the argument for the Amazon and Hudson
Yards projects were that they are big
or in some way the biggest, or the most expensive. Lots more workers, pedestrians,
and residents, were taken as being desirable. BUT in the real world, you have
to know a lot more about those jobs, pedestrians and residents. There can be
too many of them that produce congested trains, buses, and auto traffic, that
make sidewalks almost impossible to walk on comfortably, that provide more but
lower paying jobs, that create a housing shortage and huge increases in housing
costs. Do we really want every neighborhood to be like Manhattan or San Francisco
or Seattle where those who can’t afford $1 million for a condo are hard pressed
to find decent housing, where either midget apartments or shared housing – the types of residential experiences the
affluent definitely do not seek – are lauded as acceptable alternatives?
Walkability and high levels of pedestrian activity understandably
have become almost religious mantras among downtown leaders, but many places in
Manhattan have become almost unwalkable because of the density of pedestrians,
and many tourist attractions in Europe are being overrun and ruined by
attracting too many tourists. Often, as I walk through them, I think that Times
Square and parts of Fifth Ave should have olive oil misters to lubricate pedestrian
If our downtowns are being changed into places that only can
be used by people who can afford $1 million apartments, $500 per person meals
and $500 theater tickets, will they still be everyone’s neighborhoods?
The fact that the Hudson Yards project is the biggest and
most expensive urban project certainly does not in any way make it a “good”
project for the community, for the city, for all of those who are neither its
developer/landlord nor tenants, but who are paying $ billions for the project
to happen. Compared to Rockefeller Center it is an outright gated community failure.
Just because a project might produce huge increases of
something, be it jobs, housing units, money invested, etc., are poor reasons by
themselves for doing the project. Why do we keep falling for the “more is
better” types of arguments?
The Critical Density
For a significant number of economic developers,
particularly those with a partiality for urban areas, greater agglomeration and
development density have long been seen as desirable community goals. Valid
conventional wisdom recognizes that often there can be too much of a good
thing, e.g., rain, food, fire, etc. Can there also be too much development
density? One might argue that traffic congestion, growing pedestrian
congestion, growing air pollution and garbage production might all reach the
“too much” stage. A recent study has also shown that once our large cities
reach a certain population level, their economic growth slows appreciably.
Today, we can no longer assume that greater density will
always be good. It is unfortunate that we are just beginning to look at where
those cut off points might be.
Where Are Concerns
and Discussions About Community, Equity, Justice and the Common Good?
These are the kind of concerns that I think best justify
economic development activities and projects. It is amazing to me how often
they are never raised when economic development projects, programs and policies
are being discussed or how little attention is paid to them when they are. For
example, one would be hard pressed to find them in the discussions about the
NYC Amazon 2HQ or the Hudson Yards projects. While housing affordability was
raised in the fight against the 2HQ project, incentives and jobs seemed to
consume most of the oxygen in that debate.
For decades, downtown revitalization advocates argued that downtowns should be everyone’s neighborhoods. Can that aspiration be achieved when downtowns are increasingly being turned into places that even solid middle income households cannot afford to live or play in?
These concepts are fundamentally about values and often hard
to quantify. They are also often very political. Discussions that involve them
can be highly emotionally charged, even combative. Consequently, public
officials may be inclined to want to avoid them. However, that avoidance does
not diminish the importance of these concepts – or the incompetence and turpitude
of too many of those public officials.
Who’s in Charge of
Amazon’s 2HQ national effort initially drew a lot of my
interest, but I slowly grew uneasy about it. The reason for my unease did not become
clear until Amazon reneged on the NYC-LIC deal: Amazon and its needs and plans
were driving things, not the needs and well-thought out plans and strategies of
the responding communities. Amazon was
taking charge of the economic development processes in all of these communities
so hungry for more jobs and huge investments in real estate. The cities were responding
like giddy, compliant lackeys, anxious to give away anything to get such a prestigious
corporation with all its promised jobs and investment dollars.
Amazon early on plainly established by its actions that they had an “our way or the highway” policy, but political leaders — many of whom claim to be powerful politicians — just accepted Amazon’s lead. Amazon reneged in NYC when it became clear it would have to engage in some real negotiations. They were never prepared to be a true development partner. They were/are more of a potential imperial development partner. Cities do not need such imperious corporations –- they care mostly about themselves, little about the communities in which they are located.
Back in October of 2017, DANTH, Inc posted my white paper “Toward an Effective Economic Development Strategy for Smaller Communities (under 35,000)”(1). A central concept in that strategic approach was the STEEs (Small Town Entrepreneurial Environments). I then stated that: “Though I strongly suspect that such environments exist today somewhere in the USA, to date, I have not encountered one.” I then proceeded to outline what I then thought the major components of s viable and effective STEE might be. Since then, I have done additional research and visited and worked in a number of smaller communities and learned a good deal more about possible STEE components. The objective of this article is to detail those recent findings.
Viewing STEEs as Informal Business Incubators.
For a number of years now, I have been arguing that small town downtowns could be informal business incubators. My recent work made me realize that STEEs function much like informal business incubators. They are informal in the sense that all the elements of a business incubator are not in one building operated by an organization tasked to do incubation. Instead, they are dispersed within a downtown in different locations, and each may have a separate management organization. An interesting blog post by Jim Metcalf on the SCORE blog argues that incubator functions may be spread beyond the downtown and be found in the whole small town (2).
Formal business incubators have long been a fairly widely adopted economic development tool. I would argue that they will always have a vital role to play for firms that have substantial growth aspirations, that yearn to be big in terms of revenues, profits and employees, that want to be the next Apple, Facebook or Amazon. However, that usually means that the formal incubator will nurture a relatively small percentage of the businesses in a smaller community. For example, the well regarded Wyoming Technology Business Center operates incubators in the cities of Laramie,Sheridan and Casper and:
In Laramie ,the incubator has 8 clients and there are 657 residents who are self-employed, but have unincorporated businesses in the city (see Table 1).
In Sheridan, the incubator also has 8 client sand there are 340 people who are self-employed, but have unincorporated businesses in the city.
In Casper, the incubator has 12 clients and there are 1,567 people who are self-employed, but have unincorporated businesses in the city.
Informal incubation functions can help the micro and very small businesses that are usually fairly numerous even in smaller towns, as is evidenced in Table1. Their operators very often have more modest aspirations, mainly focused on how to have more stable and/or higher annual personal incomes and the steps that might help them to achieve those goals.
Many of these micro business operators work from their homes. Back in the 1990s, these home-based operators were not deemed of interest by many economic development experts, because it was thought that their numbers were few and that they seldom if ever hired any employees. More recent research, however, suggests that their numbers are far from insignificant and, at least in some instances, can be very significant (3). As Dave Carlson, the administrator of Lancaster. WI, has noted, these micro businesses, in aggregate, can equal the number of jobs provided by his town’s largest employer. Also, recent research indicates that these home-based entrepreneurs may indeed hire some employees (4).
My recent work in a few smaller communities in Upstate NY confirms Metcalf’s view – the towns had many incubator components, and many were frequently being performed in the town, but not in the downtown. The downtown obviously will be stronger if it’s the location where the vast majority of these functions are performed.
STEEs Do More Than Micro and Very Small Business Incubation
STEEs are very much related to the nurturing of creative endeavors within our smaller communities. However, they can also be a huge asset in the retention of a town’s current creatives and the attraction of more of them from other towns and cities. Those in large central cities within a 2.5to 3.0 hour drive are where the best prospects now live and work.
As I have demonstrated in several other articles and as noted in a recent article in the New York Times, a significant number of big city creatives are being drawn to rural local communities either as second homeowners or in complete, year round relocations (5). These relocations are being motivated primarily by quality of life considerations. While many create new jobs in their new towns, others bring their old jobs with them or create new jobs because the local broadband pipe allows them to telecommute. More affordable housing , a lower cost of living, family, great scenery, and a stronger sense of community are other Q of L lures.
Table 2, below, presents 12 STEE functions that are in bold and underlined type. The more of them that are present in a town, the stronger will be the town’s ability to attract and retain creative enterprises. The more of them that are in the downtown, the stronger it will be economically. Under each function are “tools” that can be used to perform that function. Here, the question is not how many can be used, but the strength with which they perform. Better to have one thing that really works than several of marginal utility. Yes, it’s better still to have several that really work well.
Many town and downtown STEE assets are not recognized or properly appreciated by local leaders. This matrix can be used by downtown leaders to assess their STEE assets. This should help them to then determine:
The elements they may want to think seriously about adding.
How the existing elements can be organized so that they are better known and more easily utilized.
How these STEE assets can be marketed to attract more creatives to move and do business in the community and the downtown.
The matrix includes such typical incubator functions as providing a work space, technical assistance for business operations (e.g., marketing, bookkeeping, human resource management, etc.), networking opportunities, and help with financing. It also includes such things as affordable housing, accessible broadband, and an existing cluster of creatives – important factors in recruiting creatives. Additional elements listed are the presence of an organization tasked to maintain and grow the STEE and someone to manage the provision of technical assistance. Downtown EDOs have typically avoided like the plague the latter two types of endeavors, but one may reasonably argue that, under the new normal, cultivating a strong, vibrant STEE will need to be a growing part of their missions.
About Specific Types of STEE Components
While in the past few years I have come across some co-worker spaces and a few incubators that are located in in small towns, they were not the STEE components that impressed me the most. Here are some that impressed me as being far more important.
Libraries. In more and more small towns, the public library has become – or is becoming – an anchor component for its STEE.Libraries are changing big time. As one blog has described it, many libraries are now “in the process of transitioning from a content collection-only facility to a content creation-inspired makerspace” (6). Not only do they provide spaces where “makers,” a term that is often broadly defined, can meet, learn from each other, and network, but they also provide a wide range of equipment the makers can use in the library. A few are even assembling an inventory of maker “kits” that are loaned out to makers for their use off site. Some librarians are arguing that libraries need to become “creative spaces.”
The Phillips Free Library in Homer, NY (pop 6,200) is a good example. It has two writers clubs, a film making club and a significant Makerspace, filled with a lot of equipment (see Table 3).
Arts Coops. In many of these small towns there are a fair number of artists and artisans. Few are likely to get all their incomes from their artistic endeavors, so many will need additional employment. As one artist in Small Town X told me, and several of his artist friends then concurred: “Small Town X is a great place for artists – except for those who want to earn a living.”
Most lack business related skills and want help in marketing and getting exposure. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to get these small town artists and artisans the technical assistance they need and often want because the assistance simply does not exist and/or the artists’ great need for independence, that they share with other small businesspeople, makes them resistant consumers.
In these small towns, getting say 20 artists and artisans the technical assistance they need may be a daunting and resource burning task.For that reason, coops are an appealing concept. When they are functional, they substantially diminish the needs of the participating artists for technical assistance. The coop can handle a lot of an artist/artisan’s marketing and bookkeeping needs, while creating a social network among the coop members.
However, coops are often unstable and short-lived. In recent months I have found one that closed, another that was reorganized and a third that appears to have some long-term stability. Even the venerable Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA, had a recent organizational and financial crisis. Someone, who was involved there on the management side, noted that managing artists was like trying to herd cats. Coop leaders very likely to face a similar challenge.
The questions that comes to my mind are:
Can the management of a coop be improved more easily, efficiently and effectively than improving the business-related skills of their 15 to 30 artist/artisan members? Getting them to individually attend an eight-to-ten month course comprised of four 10-hour workshops and up to six two-hour interim sessions, as a highly regarded program in Montana does, requires a significant amount of commitment from the artists/artisans.
The Montana program is indeed interesting and useful, as well as a model for similar efforts in other states. In Montana, it has improved the entrepreneurial skills of 400+ artists over 5 years, resulting in impressive increased net sales of 397% with a 44% increase in out-of-state sales, on average, since participating in the program. Nevertheless, I still find myself asking: could the development of a program aimed at making coops more successful be a cheaper and more productive way of meeting the technical assistance needs of artists and artisans (7)?
I do not know of anyone who has addressed the question of how to make arts coops more stable and successful. Someone perhaps should take a stab at it.
Vendor Marts. I have long been familiar with antiques malls, but somehow vendor malls, their kin, had not been on my radar until I recently came across one in a smaller community in Upstate NY. However, I had seen one in a downtown in NJ a few years ago that was being pitched as a retail incubator in the owners attempt to win support from the downtown’s EDO and city officials.
Indeed, my recently aroused interest in vender malls is precisely because of their incubation and STEE capabilities:
They provide small, maybe about 150 SF, and comparatively affordable spaces, maybe about $2,700/yr, for aspiring retailers, artists and artisans.
The vendors must “mind the store” and be behind the cash register for at least a few days a month, so they can get some retail experience. For many artists and artisans, whose primary concern is creating, not selling, this can be a very attractive feature.
Vendors that do well then can “graduate” and lease a regular storefront elsewhere in the downtown or town. The vendor mall I recently visited in Upstate NY had just had such a graduate.
Any competent downtown EDO should be able to set up a vendor mart in an empty storefront. It could increase the incubation capabilities of the vendor mart by helping the vendors learn about available technical assistance providers and then helping the vendors to connect with the TA providers. Of course, if the downtown already has a vendor mall, it could similarly increase their incubation capabilities.
Project Generated Local Investment Groups. A few years ago, in the twin cities of Scottsbluff and Gering in Nebraska, I came across informal investment groups that were formed within the local business community. One such group, for example, has helped the development of a new hotel in downtown Gering. I recently heard of similar type group being formedt o help fund the significant expansion of a local craft brewery in a smaller community also located in Upstate NY. The town may well have lost the craft brewery had not the local investment group emerged and taken action.
These groups usually are formed in response to a public need that has been identified by local officials or by well-known private sector needs.
Opportunity Zones (OZs). Recent congressional action has significantly increased the capital investment incentives that can be offered in OZs. While many in the economic development community are waiting to see how those incentives are used and the positive impacts they produce, there now is a hopeful optimism that those incentives can be powerful.
I have come across a number of downtowns that are entirely or partially covered by OZs, but do not tout them very much. Perhaps their new incentives are just too new for local leaders to figure out how they can be used. It also may be that the incentives go to Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds:
“A Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund is any investment vehicle which is organized as a corporation or a partnership for the purpose of investing in qualified opportunity zone property (other than another qualified opportunity fund) that holds at least 90 percent of its assets in qualified opportunity zone property (8).”
Many REITs and other commercial real estate investment funds are making OZ investments. For smaller towns to attract these big time investors, they will have to market the opportunities offered in the OZs and compete for the available investment dollars.
Might it be better to have the local residents and businesspeople who participate in the informal investment groups form their own QualifiedOpportunity Zone Fund?
Some Final Comments
Since I published the white paper I have been repeatedly impressed by what I have found in the smaller towns I have visited and read about. (See especially: “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart ofAmerica” by Deborah Fallows and James Fallows). I certainly recognized that they have significant challenges, but I also found a large number of capable and inventive people and capable organizations. Together, they are often building communities rich in their quality of life, if so far not in household incomes and corporate profits. There are often substantial human, organizational and economic resources in these communities that go unnoticed by outsiders and locals alike. Rather than disappearing, I expect that within the next 10 years or so our smaller communities, especially those within a three-hour drive of a major city, will become “hot” and attract many new residents and jobs. And that’s the view of a dyed in the wool New Yorker, who may like to visit smaller towns, but would never live fulltime in one – unless he has to.
3) “According to the 2012 GlobalEntrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, 69 percent of all businesses are started from home and 59 percent are still operating from their homes three years later. Additionally, ‘only one-fourth of the entrepreneurs surveyed stated they had no employees working for their businesses. Given the high prevalence of entrepreneurs operating at home (two-thirds of Total Entrepreneurial Activity),this finding suggests that many actually had employees in their home-based businesses.’” Melissa Davidson. “FOCUSING ON HOME-BASED BUSINESSES: The Forgotten Sector. IEDC EconomicDevelopment Journal, Volume 17 / Number 1/ Winter 2018, pp.11-18, p 11.
7) For the Montana program see: https://art.mt.gov/map. “Artists in the program (2009-2014) report increased net sales of 397% with a44% increase in out-of-state sales on average since participating in the program, proving that the program works. The Montana Artrepreneur Program has earned national acclaim and has impacted nearly 400 artists across Montana.” “FY2019Activities
I have been working in the field of downtown and urban revitalization since 1974. Back then, the riots of 1968 had brought considerable attention to our urban distress. Many civic and business leaders became much more aware of the cascading erosion their downtowns were facing. The white flight of shoppers and residents living in the downtown and close-in neighborhoods, disinvestment by landlords and businesses, spreading physical decay, soaring fear of crime, badly tarnished public images, and widespread frustration about not knowing how to reverse this situation were common problems in downtowns across the nation. Today, many of our downtowns have been thoroughly revitalized and become very popular places for people to live, play and work. Scads of other downtowns are in the process of doing so. These days, the expectation that downtowns can and will be revitalized has replaced the fears of the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s that downtowns were doomed to be places of failure, despair and decay. Downtown leaders now can tap a large and growing knowledge base that includes an array of tools and techniques they can use to solve the problems that had previously plagued our downtowns. Among them are: place-making, improving walkability, transit-oriented development, mixed-use residential development, niche marketing, BIDs, TIF, PILOTs, community policing, etc. This success — both actual and expected — and the knowledge base and leadership pool that support it, are some of the defining characteristics of the New Normal for Our Downtowns.
The Downtown Residents – CSD Connection
Successful downtowns, however, are not stagnant socio/economic/geographic organisms. Indeed, some of the factors that explain their success have also both changed the way they operate and generated a new set of problems that now need attention and solutions. For example, though it is generally agreed among downtown revitalization experts that the significant growth of housing in and near our downtowns has been a primary engine for their recent rejuvenations, questions recently have emerged about downtowns being turned into ghettos for the affluent. Still, the significant presence of these residential units are themselves an important and new phenomenon. Moreover, these new residents have created a significant new demand for services, amenities and merchandise that are not typically associated with the Central Business District (CBD) functions and venues that dominated our downtowns in decades past. These CBD functions and venues also have long dominated our understanding of how successful downtowns should operate and been the focus of most downtown revitalization strategies (e.g., retail growth, office development, job creation, transportation improvements). While many of these new downtown residents may also work in the district, their demand for and consumption of opportunities to socialize, relax and be entertained has driven the development and/or use of strong restaurant and bar niches, public spaces and parks, libraries and community centers, movie theaters, museums, PACs, churches, senior centers, etc. These venues are associated with a downtown’s Central Social District (CSD) functions.
Another defining characteristic of the New Normal is that successful downtowns have very strong CSD venues and, with increasing frequency, they are as important or even outshine those associated with its CBD functions. Some types of CSD venues have long been present in some downtowns, but the appearance of a bolus of downtown residents has generally sparked their significant growth while broadening the kinds of venues present. In turn, by strengthening these venues, the downtown residents have helped them be stronger magnets for people working in the district as well as daytime visitors from the district’s largest trade areas and for tourists from even more distant places.
The presence of these residents and the strength of these CSD venues also has changed the way a downtown operates. Most importantly, they widen the range of a downtown’s multi-functionality, increasing the reasons why people will use the downtown. By doing so, they also provide a steady and significant flow of pedestrians and customers that helps assure the district does not close down on weekends or weekdays after 6:00 pm. Strong CSD venues also make the downtown “stickier,” keeping visitors in the district for longer periods of time.
Strong CSD venues also make working in a downtown more appealing. In a labor market where many job offers now find no takers, firms located in strong CSDs are likely to find it easier to recruit quality employees. Moreover, many of the quality of life needs of creatives/knowledge workers are met by strong CSD assets. In smaller towns, strong CSDs can help attract quality independent retailers and Lone Eagle business operators.
But CSD Development Can Be Very Bumpy
Nevertheless, CSD development and growth does not always have clear sailing. Many communities may opt for CSD development projects that are ill-suited for their demographics, geographic locations, or industry trends, while they could have instead undertaken projects that were cheaper to build and operate and capable of attracting many more users. For example, advocates for new arts events venues such as PACs, theaters, and museums as well as for arenas and stadiums often badly over-estimate their potential economic impacts on the downtown, while underestimating construction and operating costs. In larger cities, major organizations in the opera, ballet, symphony orchestra and nonprofit theater fields are badly stressed having to cope with significant declines in paid attendance and financial contributions. In smaller communities, the impacts of new arts events venues on their downtowns are too often grossly exaggerated, and operating costs badly underestimated. Consistently, between 40% and 50% of arts nonprofits are financially in the red.
The most effective strategic path is to first focus on the strengthening and/or development of well-activated parks and public spaces, restaurants and watering holes, and movie theaters. They are usually the easiest to create and operate and have the fewest user frictions or are asset treasures that need to be improved and saved.
Though a lot of strategic planning is done for CBD functions and venues, strategic plans for CSDs are rare, but equally needed. While attention may be given to individual CSD projects, too many of such studies are marred by advocacy induced puffery. Very unfortunately, little attention is being paid to the CSD as whole entity.
Technology Is Creating a New Set of Problems
The impacts of technology are also strongly defining the New Normal. This is most apparent in the way the Internet is forcing the whole retail industry to search for a new operating paradigm and electronic consumption has reduced the brick and mortar consumption of the arts. How and when people shop is consequently changing in significant ways. They first research online and then shop the store for the targeted item(s). Strolling and browsing shoppers subsequently are on the decline. Many Americans are time-stressed, so many shoppers want quick, convenient retail transactions. Yet, many others want more interesting, more meaningful and more socially appealing shopping experiences. Shoppers have also become much more careful and deliberate when making purchases. While this is most strongly apparent among middle-income consumers, affluent shoppers are also showing signs of greater caution.
Changed consumer behavior, combined with growing online sales, have reduced the demand for downtown store locations and the amount of space retailers want for their new stores.
While downtown retail shops will not disappear, they almost certainly will change in the way they operate, the amounts of space they each need, as well as the types of locations they will want.
Yet, as my discussions with potential clients demonstrate, many downtown organizations still see retail as a key element in their downtown’s future, while largely disregarding improvements to their CSDs.
The appearance of app-driven car services such as Uber and Lyft have already impacted on traffic congestion and the use of public transportation in several large downtowns. The imminent use of automated vehicles – e.g., by Waymo soon in Phoenix – will likely have important impacts on traffic congestion in a host of additional downtowns. What these impacts will be remains uncertain- as do the possible remedies to those that are harmful. The transition to automated vehicles will probably take 20 to 40 years, with different issues dominating downtowners’ concerns at each stage of its progression.
Success Can Create Problems
The very success of our downtowns also has created its own set of problems. For example:
High housing demand has created a very serious affordability problem for many downtowns and their nearby neighborhoods.
Downtown success usually means more pedestrian traffic. For example, from 2009 to 2015, pedestrian growth in Manhattan’s economically healthy central business district grew by about 18 to 24 percent. At what point does the density of downtown pedestrian traffic become uncomfortable and unappealing for pedestrians and detrimental to an area’s image and popularity? The uncomfortable density of users is already occasionally being felt in such famed public spaces in NYC as Times Square, Bryant Park and Central Park. Will those instances of pedestrian congestion increase? Some of the managers of these public spaces seem unconcerned about pedestrian congestion. Indeed, they seem to be committed to having the largest number of visitors possible.
As a recent study of Center City in Philadelphia has shown, greater downtown development density increases traffic congestion.
This is part of book proposal I am writing. I’d appreciate hearing if you would be interested in a book that expanded upon the above content. Please let me know at [email protected] .