As the readers of this blog probably know, I have spent a lot of time and effort on identifying the components of our Central Social Districts and analyzing what makes them succeed or fail. I’ve dug deeply into public spaces, movie theaters, housing, and various other components in cities large and small.
Recently, I was asked for one article that put it all together. I realized that I did not have one, so I consequently set out to write it. That article was recently published in The American Downtown Revitalization Review – The ADRR at https://theadrr.com/
Doing the topic justice meant that it would be long, about 30 pages, and more like a monograph than an article. Readers wanting a quicker take can just focus on the first six pages. However, if you are looking for more guidance about what to do and not do, you will need to dig deeper into the article.
Some of the important things I tried to do are to establish that some components are much easier and cheaper to establish than others, and which work better in different types of downtowns. I also tried to strip away a lot of the advocacy hype about some components that too often hides the challenges involved and obscures how progress needs to be evaluated, e.g., the arts venues, while spotlighting venues whose importance still goes widely unrecognized, e.g., libraries.
Here’s the article’s tease and link:
Strong Central Social Districts: The Keys to Vibrant Downtowns
By N. David Milder
CSDs and Some of Their Frequent Components. Since antiquity, successful communities have had vibrant central meeting places that bring residents together and facilitate their interactions, such as the Greek agoras and the Roman forums. Our downtowns long have had venues that performed these central meeting place functions, e.g., restaurants, bars, churches, parks and public spaces, museums, theaters, arenas, stadiums, multi-unit housing, etc. The public’s reaction to the social distancing sparked by the Covid19 pandemic, and the closure of so many CSD venues, was a natural experiment that demonstrated how much the public needs and wants these venues. They are the types of venues and functions that make our downtowns vibrant, popular and successful. To read more click here : https://theadrr.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Strong-Central-Socia-LDistricts-__-the-Keys-to-Vibrant-Downtowns__-Part-1-FINAL.pdf
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.
in 2017, I published “Quality-of-Life Based Retail Recruitment” in the IEDC’s
Economic Development Journal (1). Among its main arguments were that:
Many of the new retail shops in our smaller and
medium-sized downtowns are being opened by new or returning residents
These new and returning residents are most strongly drawn
by the town’s quality of life.
There are a lot of talented people who prefer the
lifestyles offered in our small and rural communities, many of whom are now
residing in other locations.
Many will not need new jobs, or they can bring their
current jobs with them, or they will create their own new jobs.
They represent a substantial market segment that should
be targeted by downtown EDOs in our smaller and medium sized communities. Such
a program might be the most cost effective way to attract high quality
independent retail operators to these downtowns.
Over the past year, I have had consulting
assignments in a number of communities that are relatively rural and have
populations under 35,000: Auburn, Cortland, and Oneida in Central NY, and
Vinalhaven in ME. In the last few months, I also came across some research done
in Minnesota, Nebraska and nationally that, I am embarrassed to admit, I should
have found years ago, but that somehow eluded my earlier internet searches.
These studies were done back between 2007 and 2015. They and my consulting
assignments both provided new data and arguments that support the analysis I
presented in my QofL retail recruitment
article and expanded my understanding of many of the points I had made.
Rural Areas Have People in Creative Class
Occupations, But Fewer of Them.
a study published in 2007 of the
creative class in the nation’s rural counties by David McGranahan and Timothy
Wojan found that: “While in metropolitan counties about 30.9% of the workforce
were in creative class occupations, in rural counties it was just 19.4%” (2).
People Being Drawn to Small and Rural
Communities by Their QofL Assets Is Not a New Trend. The Buffalo
Commons survey of the Panhandle Region of Nebraska as well as research led by
Ben Winchester in northwestern Minnesota found that these rural areas had
“brain gains” as well as “brain drains,”
and that the incoming migrants were overwhelmingly attracted by a town’s
QofL assets. For example, the Buffalo Commons
survey found that migrants into the Panhandle’ counties were motivated by the
A simpler life, 53%
A less congested place to live, 50%
Being closer to relatives, 50%
Lower housing costs, 48%
Lower cost of living, 45%
higher paying job, 39%
Living in a desirable natural
environment, 37% (3)
Winchester’s study found that “There were a
number of factors that were important in the newcomer decisions to move:
To find a
less congested place to live , 77%
environment for raising children, 75%
better quality local schools, 69%
To find a
safer place to live, 69%
To lower the
cost of housing, 66%
To find a
simpler pace of life, (66%
To find more
outdoor recreational activities, 63%
To be closer
to relatives, 62%
To live in a
desirable natural environment, 60%
To lower the
cost of living, 53% (4)
Additionally, the study by
McGranahan and Wojan found that:
” The present analysis of recent rural development in rural US counties,
which focuses on natural amenities as quality of life indicators, supports the
creative class thesis”.
In the rural counties of metropolitan
areas, “ The creative class moves into less dense metropolitan counties in
search of a higher (more rural) quality of life; the building of a creative
class (then) creates an environment for job growth; and this leads to further
The In-Migrants Are Often Quite Skilled. Both the Minnesota and Nebraska studies found that these migrants “have significant education, skills,
connections, (and) spending power” (6). The Buffalo Commons survey found, for
example, 45% of them had skills in the
management, business, financial and professional fields. Many of them would be considered members of
the “creative class”.
However, findings of the McGranahan and Wojan study suggest that the
skill sets of rural and metropolitan creatives might differ in important
ways. For example: more metropolitan creatives had college degrees,
56.2% than the rural creatives, 36.8%. while
21.4% of the rural creatives were self-employed compared to 17.1% of the
metropolitan creatives (7).
Rural Innovation. A topic one might hypothesize is
strongly related to workforce skill sets is innovation. One useful definition
of innovation is: the introduction of
“new goods, services, or ways of doing business that are valued by consumers” (8).
A research report written in 2017 by Tim Wojan and Timothy Parker, of USDA’s
Economic Research Service found that:
Urban establishments in nonfarm
tradable industries were more likely than rural establishments to be
Innovation rates in urban and rural manufacturing
industries are very similar.
In the service industries, the innovation rates of
rural establishments are lower than those of the urban firms in the same
The manufacturing industries with the
highest rate of innovators in rural areas were pharmaceuticals, chemicals,
computers, plastics and textile mills.
The only tradable service-providing industries
with a high share of substantive innovators in rural areas were
telecommunications and wholesale electronic markets.
About 30% of metro establishments could
be classified as substantive innovators, while only about 20% of the nonmetro
establishments fell into this group. Importantly: “The metro-nonmetro
differences in innovation are considerable but less than commonly assumed” (9).
Artists Havens. Another
study published in 2007 by Wojan,
Lambert, and McGranahan, “The Emergence of Rural Artistic Havens: A
First Look” focused squarely on the issue of the ability of rural counties to
attract the artist subset of the creative class in 1990 and 2000. Counties
meeting some minimum employment levels and with more than 40 people in artistic
occupations were deemed to be artistic havens. Functionally, the existence of
an artistic haven occurs when “a minimum
critical mass of artists or performers” has been established so that “members
of the community benefit from substantial interaction among themselves and the
group is large enough to affect culture of the wider community” (10).
The authors identified two kinds of artistic havens. “Existing havens”
were those identified using 1990 census data, while the “emerging havens” were identified with 2000 census data. Altogether,
only about nine percent of our rural counties then had such havens.
However, what was noteworthy in their findings was that the number of
havens had doubled over a decade. (See table above).
The table below is based on the pooled responses for the American Community Surveys for the years 2007-2011. It was constructed by USDA researchers. Their results should be viewed as describing the situation during that time period. However, the ACS’s investigation of the number of “artists” is problematical because the average standard error on its estimates of the number of artists in each non-metropolitan county is about 45%. Nevertheless, the data may still be useful if we try to make some adjustments for that strong margin of error and treat the results as ‘directional” rather than definitive. To that end, instead of looking at the number of non-metro counties having more than 40 artists, I bumped the magic number up to 60. There are 668 non- metro counties that the ACS found having more than 60 artists, or about 35% of all non-metro counties. That suggests that there was probably a very substantial increase between 2000 and 2011 from the number of artistic havens, 199, Wojan et al identified in their 2007 paper. Prudence suggests refraining from claiming an exact number, such as 489 (668-199=489), but very substantial growth seems very likely.
Wojan et al explain that
the strong relationship they found between the emergence of new artistic havens
and the presence of large numbers of 25-44 year olds with college degrees is
based on the highly educated workers being viewed as a very powerful proxy for
quality of life” (11). They go on to state that: “The implications of these
findings are that counties that have been unable to retain highly educated
workers are less likely to attract artists in sufficient numbers to constitute
an arts community”(12). That all sounds
very Floridian, but the unstated implication is that a lot of these highly
educated workers is necessary. There are several problems with that. Richard
Florida is quite adamant in his argument that it is the type of work people
perform, not their education levels,
that is the defining factor of creative class members.
More importantly, there are small towns and cities like Auburn in NY where the percentages of college graduates, 20.7% , are quite lower than the nation’s, 30.9%, yet they are attracting between 50 and 100 artists who represent less than 0.5% of their town’s population. Nevertheless, they are able to build a sense of there being a recognizable artistic community, or “haven” in their communities.
Also, McGranahan et al
reported that about 63% of rural creatives lack college degrees. Does that mean
they lack the magnetism of other
creatives? That seems highly unlikely.
If the highly educated workers are a strong proxy for QofL, then it would appear that more precisely investigating what the components of that QofL are is essential. The Buffalo Commons and the northwestern Minnesota studies give some strong indications about what some of them are. My own discussions over the years with creative types living in smaller towns and cities suggests that, while they certainly like having other creatives nearby, and appreciated the beauty of their area, also very important are such factors as being closer to family, a slower pace of life, having a stronger sense of community, affordable housing costs, having active social places such as eateries, bars, public spaces and arts and cultural venues . In other words, they appreciated central social district type venues and the activities associated with them.
Getting back to the
table, some of the data in it are presented in ranges determined by + and – 45%
of the original estimates. For example, the mean number of artists per
non-metro is between 41 and 107. When the error factor was 8% or less, just the
estimates are reported in the table. This mostly occurred with the data on
creative class occupations. As night be expected, these data show that the
non-metro counties will have far fewer creatives and they will represent a
lower proportion of those employed than in the metro counties. However, these
levels are not negligible.
While Young Adults May Be Leaving, 30-49
Year Olds May Be Returning. In both NE
and MN, in-migration appears to have resulted in a surge in the populations of
residents in the 30-49 years old age group in some rural locations (13). Of
course, their populations in the young adult cohort show a consistent loss.
This suggests that a significant amount of boomeranging may be occurring. The
youths leave for better job prospects and a more urban life style, and many
then return to small and rural towns later
in life with more skills and resources that strengthen their new communities. For example, the Buffalo Commons survey found
that 38% of the respondents and 32% of their spouses had lived in their current
community prior to returning to it. Winchester found, though with a much
smaller sample of 53, that 43% of the “new” residents has previously lived in
or near their current community.
Boomerangs Are Important. One analyst has argued that
boomerangers are not that important because they only account for 30% to 40% of
the new migrants. To the contrary, it might more convincingly be argued that
they are very important because no other prior residential location has
anywhere near those numbers. Additionally, from the perspective of developing a
business recruitment program that targets QofL prospects, there are several
obvious possible networking opportunities with potential boomerangers that are
completely absent with other prospects. Moreover, there have been several
successful “Return Home” campaigns launched in communities such as Ann Arbor,
MI, Scranton, PA, and Superior, NE from which much can be learned (14).
QofL In-Migrants Can Have Impacts Larger Than
Their Numbers Might Indicate. My assignments in the Central
NY communities was on a project led by the Lakota Group to assess the
feasibility of establishing arts/creative districts in their downtowns. In each
community, well-attended focus groups
were held for local artists, arts leaders and business people. In each
town, a strong majority of the creatives
were either not natives of the town or boomerangs. When asked, most explained
their reasons for moving to that town In terms of the QofL assets it offered.
Auburn. The situations in Auburn and Oneida are very revealing about the impacts these QofL migrants can have on the local business community. In Auburn, in recent years they have opened a number of shops that are very highly regarded by local leaders and shoppers. They are certainly viewed as much better operators than those who previously occupied their storefronts. Their current number is below 10, but their presence suggests that the downtown is now in a much more upbeat place on its revitalization arc. It can be reasonably argued that their positive impacts on the downtown far exceed what their small number might suggest. Moreover, even If they keep coming at a rate of only one or two a year, in a few years there will be a substantial bolus of them with more than ample customer magnetism and image making power. They are successful because they are bringing in strong skill sets that are even relevant if they do a career reboot, as well as significant financial resources.
It is interesting that when interviewed, these QofL migrant entrepreneurs say that the presence of a significant arts community in the Auburn was an important factor in their decisions to live and work in their new communities. Since the Finger Lakes area is filled with numerous scenic places, outdoor recreational opportunities, vineyards, charming restaurants and inns, and historic sites, Auburn’s arts assets probably helped it compete successfully with other towns in the region to attract these new merchants.
The leader of a local artists organization
estimated that there are about 75 to 100 local residents who are artists of one
form or another. That means that the city of Auburn, with a population around
26,000, today seems to be an artistic haven: it has besides its resident
artists, nine major arts and cultural
attractions that have a combined annual attendance of about 199,000 that brings
about $6,273,356 in spending power to the city that local merchants can capture
(see table above).
Auburn is now on the path of creating an arts/cultural district to help provide a support structure for its arts community and to help it have stronger marketing and promotional capabilities. According the Americans for the Arts, there are now over 300 culture districts in the US (see the map below). They are proliferating, though only a small proportion our 19,000+ villages, towns and cities have them. The number in smaller and rural communities is unknown, but they are not scarce: e.g., Peekskill, NY; Paducah, KY; Ridgeway (900 residents), Salida and Crested Butte in CO. As a point of comparison, BIDs started to appear in serious numbers in the early 1980s and today there are over 1,000 of them across the nation. The culture/arts districts have not yet had 39 years to grow in.
Oneida. Downtown Oneida is now in the initial stages of its revitalization arc. Consequently, I was happily surprised to find in its struggling downtown a small group of independent merchants who are among the most marketing and internet savvy retailers I encountered in the overall project. While the old downtown retailers were dead or dying, these merchants were internet savvy and knew they had to tap consumers well beyond the town’s borders. One operates a vendor mart that brings a considerable variety of merchandise into town and provides some business incubation functions. Together, this group of operators formed a marketing campaign that targeted the visitors to a gambling casino located about an eight minute drive from the downtown. Two of these operators are boomerangs, and the spouse of one telecommutes on his job with a Fortune 500 corporation. Though the group is now small in number, it is modeling business behaviors for other merchants in the community, be they new or old, while bringing a badly needed perspective into the town’s decision-making about economic policies and programs. They are, consequently, helping to change the business culture in Oneida along several important dimensions as well as the way the downtown business community should be seen within the whole city. Moreover, I’ll bet their presence will attract more businesspeople who are like them.
Vinalhaven. This beautiful island is located about a 75 minute ferry ride off the coast of Maine. It’s roughly the size of Manhattan. It has a year round population of about 1,400 that bulges to about 5,000 in the peak tourist summer months. Lobster fishing and tourism are it major economic engines. Home-owners who are part-time residents and relatively longer stay home rentals are the most important components of its tourism. These renters are often annual visitors. The thing that binds the year round residents, the part-time residents, the long-stay renters and the fisherman is the island’s highly venerated quality of life. They are quite overt in their awareness of this. The community is also united in its concern that any growth in tourism should be balances so as not to endanger their strongly appealing QofL.
The island’s downtown is relatively small, with
relatively few storefronts, yet it is still the community’s economic and social
hub. On a recent visit, I found that several of its merchants were QofL
migrants with impressive previous careers elsewhere in the nation. They opened
their shops on Vinalhaven to provide themselves with some income and/or to keep
busy. This often meant career reboots. Some of the more recent arrivals wanted
to live and work on Vinalhaven so much that, because the of very high costs of
flood insurance, they had to pay cash for their new business locations. On
Vinalhaven, if you subtract the QofL migrants who opened businesses there, the downtown would be deader than a doornail!
Vinalhaven is also an artists haven. A local
gallery reported that about 70 artists are associated with it who spend at
least some part of the year in Vinalhaven. These artists have displayed an
attraction to Vinalhaven’s QofL. The gallery not only provides the artist with
a marketing channel, but also serves as the artists main local social venue. Robert
Indiana was a longtime resident. His estate may be opening some kind of museum
in the downtown.
The ability of small and medium sized communities in
rural areas to attract talented new and returning residents because of their
QofL assets is not a new phenomenon, but it has not been significantly
Rural QofL assets have traditionally been mostly as natural
amenities. However, more recently, a
high quality of life” is seen as being more broadly defined . That means that newcomers
being able to perceive the presence of an
ample number of people like themselves, strong central social districts humming
with some vibrant restaurants and watering holes, and strong public spaces are
increasingly the assets smaller communities will need to pull in talented new
residents and boomerangs.
“Brain Gain” and “Brain Drain” can happen in the same towns,
with the young adults leaving and
mid-life adults, many of whom are boomerangers, moving in from larger, more
Simply stated, the underlying challenge for small and
rural communities is to have the brain gain be larger than the brain loss.
Some of these new and returning residents will open downtown businesses. Though
early on their absolute numbers may be small, say just two to five, their
influence on the downtown’s revitalization can be exponentially greater. The
ability to even recruit 1 or 2 of such QofL entrepreneurs annually could have
very profound positive impacts on a downtown. Smaller and rural communities do
not have win hordes of new residents to see meaningful positive changes.
Potential boomerangers are an obvious market segment that
a recruitment program should make a high priority target.
However, anyone visiting the town, especially on a
recurring basis, should also be targeted – e.g., visitors to local hotels/motels,
restaurants, parks, museums, theaters, etc.
Smaller communities are, well, small, so you do not need
to attract hordes of creative class members — or their artist subset — to
spark significant economic development.
Across the nation over the past decade or so, the idea of
using the arts as an engine for downtown and Main Street economic growth has
attracted a growing number of adherents. One outcome of this advocacy is that arts
districts, a.k.a. creative districts, are appearing across the nation.
Colorado, for example has at least 26 of them, all formed under a state
statute. These districts either cover a designated part of a downtown district
or all of it.
However, very often, arts event venues and/or artisan work
spaces in a small town or big city are mostly dispersed beyond the downtown’s
borders. The town’s arts/creative assets then are much like an archipelago where
the arts islands may have some smaller clusters, but overall there is a good
deal of separation among them — as well as from the downtown’s businesses.
Some of these arts assets can be 3+ miles from the downtown. In these
communities, the downtown district only occupies a portion of the islands in
the complete arts archipelago.
The notion of a geographically bounded arts district that
only includes the downtown, or just a portion of it, consequently may not
appear to make much sense in communities with arts archipelagoes. The objectives
of this article are to:1) provide examples of such archipelagoes and 2) try to
stretch the arts district concept to fit arts archipelago situations. The keys
to achieving the needed conceptual stretch will be the presence of mutual
interests and complementary assets among downtown arts and business
stakeholders and the arts venues in the rest of the archipelago.
Reasons for the
Since about 2010, our field observations in many smaller
communities revealed that the dispersion of their economic and arts assets into
numerous commercial nodes and individual locations started when they were even
smaller and much younger. Consequently, it should not have been surprising that
when we started working on a project in some of these archipelago communities, we
found a high degree of long standing dispersion
of economic and arts assets. In many
small towns, for example, the former homes of illustrious people that were
located in the residential part of town have been turned into museums. Many art and entertainment venues, such as
museums, concert halls, PACs, casinos, stadiums, arenas, etc. did not locate in
downtowns because they were so large and required so much parking that they did
not easily fit into available downtown development sites. Downtown sites were
also often much more expensive to develop
because of land acquisition and demolition costs. Sometimes, too, community
leaders wanted their prestige arts venues placed in park-like settings that
could only be provided away from the downtown.
Individual creatives often find that downtown rents for
residential and work spaces are too expensive or soon became so after they have
pioneered improvements in the district. As a result, they frequently take
cheaper places beyond the district, and in smaller towns, even in rural
settings. Often, too, these creatives simply prefer working and living in a
rustic rural setting.
Some Examples of Arts
1. Manhattan, in NYC. Downtowns are one contiguous area, without any separations. For example, the Midtown CBD in Manhattan runs east -west from the East River to the Hudson River, and north south from about 30th Street to 59th Street. In contrast, Manhattan’s arts, cultural and entertainment institutions are more like an archipelago running from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan to the Cloisters near its northern edge. Yes, Midtown has the theater district, MoMA, the Morgan Museum, Radio City Music Hall, City Center, Town Hall and lots of movie theaters. But:
The large and powerful Lincoln Center is just
north of the Midtown CBD
The Museum Mile – the Met, Guggenheim, Neue,
Jewish Museum, Museum of the City of NY, Cooper Hewitt, and El Museo Del Barrio
— runs along Fifth Avenue from about 82nd street to 104th
street. The Breuer annex of the Met is on Madison at 75th St.
Chelsea to the south of the Midtown CBD has tons
of art galleries, the Joyce Theater (a favored venue for dance companies), the
DIA Museum and the Rubin Museum.
Further south are the new Whitney Museum, the
New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the National
Museum of the American Indian. There are several smaller museums in this area,
There reportedly are a total of 32 Museums in
Manhattan and vying counts of 83 and 100 for all five boroughs.
Many, if not most, of Manhattan’s strongest and most
important arts and cultural venues are not located in either the Midtown CBD or
the Downtown Financial District CBD. Some of them are in clusters that might
merit the term arts district being used to describe them (like the theater
2. . Cleveland, OH. Downtown Cleveland has some venerable and wonderful cultural institutions. Save for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the most important ones are in two clusters about one-mile from the downtown core (Playhouse Square) and about three miles away (Severance Hall. the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Arboretum) near University Circle.
3. Auburn, NY (population around 26,704). This town in Central New York has an impressive number of arts-cultural-entertainment venues. The table above shows their annual attendance. They are sorted into three groups. At the bottom are those located in the downtown: the 16 restaurants and bars that have live music, the Auburn Public Theater, the new NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center and the Seward House Museum. Together, they have an estimate annual audience of 110,484. Above it is a cluster of venues that are about 0.5 miles from the downtown, containing the Schweinfurth Arts Center, The Pitch Theater and the Cayuga Museum. It has a total annual attendance of around 23,688.
At the top are three venues that are farther away from the
downtown. The Harriet Tubman National Historic Park is about 1.3 miles away. On
a different road, the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and the nearby Ward O’Hara
Museum are about 3 miles from the downtown. These three venues account for
about 47% of the arts-cultural-entrainment audience in Auburn. It’s downtown
business operators, especially those in the hospitality and entertainment
industries, would be foolish to not try to capture the expenditures of the
audiences of those three “distant” arts-cultural venues.
4. Cortland, NY (population 18,698). In Cortland, a relatively small college town, a very interesting, if complicated situation exists. First, the downtown lacks a strong formal arts/cultural/entertainments venue as can be seen in the above table. The Cortland Repertory Theater has a branch there, but only attracts 2,000 to 4,000 patrons annually, mainly in non-summer months. Its main theater is in Preble, a 17 minute drive away, and it attracts 18,000 to 20,000 annually. The venues that draw the largest audience are the cluster of six restaurants/bars that have live music, though the Courthouse Park with events there run through the Youth Bureau may have an unreported significant audience. Other downtown arts entertainment venues report annual attendances of 3,500 or less.
The town’s movie theater has the largest audience and it’s a
5 minute drive from the downtown. The other venues with relatively large
audiences are not even in the city – they are in nearby Homer, a 7 minute
drive, or a more distant Preble, a 17
The Importance of
It is critical to recognize that the downtown arts district
concept ignores the fact that the people
and firms who are most likely to visit and use the downtown and companies who
are likely to have business transactions with downtown firms are usually
located not only in the downtown, but also nearby. They are the real core of
the downtown’s traditional trade area.
How Near is Near? In dense urban areas, “near” usually
means within about one mile of a downtown. But in less urbanized areas, where
walking is less important, and autos are a necessity, the area within about a
five-minute drive can be considered “near” – but what is considered an easy
drive varies considerably geographically. In parts of Wyoming and Montana, for
example, residents will drive for two hours to get to a major retail center.
Create an Organized
Arts/Entertainment Community Instead of a Downtown Arts District
Basically, it is an
arts district with flexible geographic boundaries
that are defined by local economic, and sometimes political, realities. It is
focused on and around a downtown
district and combines in a formal organization:
The downtown’s EDO
Major downtown non-arts/entertainment
Representation from the local government.
Major arts/entertainment venues within an area
that includes the downtown, but extends beyond it, much as the downtown’s
residential trade area does (but the two will not be congruent). That extended territory might be called the
Area of Mutual Interest (AMI). The extent of the AMI will vary by community and
be determined by the existing and/or potential relationships between the
downtown and the arts venues in the AMI. The AMI in most instances probably
will extend one to two miles from the downtown, but in other, rarer, instances
it could extend five miles, or even more.
Broadly defined creative micro and small
businesses within the AMI: e.g., visual
artists, crafters, tattoo artists, entertainers, chefs, brewers, makers, etc.
The objectives of the Organized
Arts Entertainment Community are:
For the arts and downtown business communities,
aware of how each can help the well-being of the other, the prime directive is to
formally work together in planned endeavors for their mutual benefits. These
benefits for the downtown might include: more downtown residents; more people
employed downtown; more people visiting the downtown; higher property values
and rents, and higher sales revenues for downtown businesses. For the arts
organizations the benefits may be: better marketing; increased revenues, higher
attendance; greater availability of technical assistance, and stronger
cooperative advocacy programs.
For the creatives, the Community would aim to
help increase their incomes by facilitating the more effective marketing of
their products and helping their business operation become more productive. It
would help these businesses grow to the level of the owners aspirations. The
downtown would provide for the creatives physical places where their wares can
be marketed or where they can perform, as well as places for social interaction
like a White Horse Tavern or Cedar Tavern. It also would be the place where
they are connected to technical and financial assistance providers. It also can
be the place where their creative supplies are purchased, and their wares are
What such an Organized Arts Entertainment Community might do:
Create a very place-centered marketing campaign focused
on attracting more visitors to the AMI. It would feature multi-faceted
opportunities to have rewarding and entertaining experiences not only in arts
and entertainment establishments, but also in dining, drinking and pampering establishments.
For arts organizations, it would, for
example, also provide:
A marketing campaign that “tells the stories” of
the arts at the overall AMI area level as well as at the level of the
individual art organizations.
Links for arts organizations to funders and assistance
to improve grant proposal development
Information about best practices, especially re
marketing and how to increase earned incomes.
For the creatives, it would, for example, also develop
and maintain a downtown entrepreneurial environment that will:
Enable them to have their products more
Help their business operations become more
Provide social spaces that can stimulate social
and business networking.
of an Arts Archipelago May Want to Work
Shared Common Interests. All benefit from:
Attracting more people to live and work in the
Attracting more people to visit the AMI,
including trade area residents, day trippers, and overnight tourists.
Working together they become stronger attractions:
Every downtown and non-downtown organization
that can offer enjoyable experiences adds to making the area of mutual concern
more magnetic to residents, workers and visitors.
Non-downtown arts venues often lack nearby
hospitality establishments for their audiences who travel significant
distances, while the downtown may have a relatively large cluster of
hospitality venues. Conversely, the
non-downtown arts venues might bring in large audiences from distant places
that the downtown hospitality venues could not by themselves attract.
The Downtown Benefits as It Meets
Arts Community Needs. By doing the things that downtowns have long done,
but with notable focus on the arts, downtown businesses can become more
Assets of the community’s entrepreneurial environment that are located in the downtown
Social meeting places for artists and artisans – e.g., bars, restaurants, libraries, co-working spaces. This can create magnets drawing non-artists.
Offices and meeting rooms for arts organizations
Technical assistance providers officed in downtown
Financial services and assistance providers officed in downtown
Affordable workspaces for artists and artisans – studios, rehearsal spaces
Affordable downtown living spaces for artist and artisans
Retail channels for artists and artisans; retailers have unique ,local products to sell, some new arts businesses may be started.
Incubation spaces for arts related start-ups and micro businesses.
Marketing and promotional opportunities
Arts presented/exhibited in public spaces such as parks and gov’t office buildings; this helps activate those spaces.
Arts presented/exhibited in private sector spaces such as restaurants, retail shops, office building lobbies; this makes them more physically attractive with more magnetic pull on potential users.
Arts presented /exhibited at arts shows, crafts shows, festivals; this increases their magnetism
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] .