OUR LARGE DOWNTOWNS CAN LEARN SOME IMPORTANT THINGS FROM THEIR SUBURBAN BRETHREN?

By N David Milder

Introduction

Throughout the pandemic suburban downtowns have stood out from our largest downtowns in their ability to recover. This was no accident, but the result of the smaller districts not being dominated by monofunctional office clusters, and often actually being far more multifunctional than their larger cousins.

The pandemic has sparked numerous claims that our CBDs (Central Business Districts) are now in decline, and perhaps even perilously so. (1)  What is usually lost in such pessimistic analyses is that the areas referred to as CBDs are just large office clusters that are part of the larger downtown. The unexpected and now persistent popularity of remote work, and the consequent empty CBD office spaces certainly lend credence to those claims of weakening. So do the declines in business tourism and a severe thinning of pedestrian traffic on sidewalks usually flush with platoons of office workers at lunchtime and during rush hours.

While all of these deficiencies are undeniable, the assertions that our large downtowns/CBDs are doomed to extreme diminution or death are greatly exaggerated. To understand why our great downtowns are far from doomed we need to properly understand them and their key component parts. Most importantly, they can be not only places where people come to work and make money, but also to socialize and connect with others, to spend money, and to satisfy important personal needs. Moreover, these socially connecting functions are of growing importance to the health and well-being of all of our downtowns. This growth of the socially connecting functions is shifting the nature of our large downtowns. Such a shift would make them much more like our strong suburban downtowns.

Let’s Be Clear About What We Are Talking About

A good starting point is to acknowledge that downtowns are more than geographic areas within our towns and cities filled with clusters of offices and shops. They are complex socio-economic systems, that over time can flex in geographic extent, and the nature and strength of the functions performed within them. To persist and thrive they must change. In the post WWII years, the functions associated with working and making money took physical form in office buildings that dominated our largest downtowns.

Most of the articles proclaiming that our downtowns are in trouble use the term CBD  as a synonym for downtown. This is more than a verbal slight, since it too often leads to a narrow focus on the socio-economic functions associated with office operations, while ignoring or downplaying the other vital downtown functions. Consequently, it is important to consider all of a downtown’s functions, with the most important falling into three categories:

  • CENTRAL BUSINESS FUNCTIONS (CBFs): These are money based, dealing with work, business transactions, and the creation and management of wealth and job creation
  • CENTRAL SOCIAL FUNCTIONS (CSFs) : The downtown’s collection of activity venues that facilitate people socially connecting and having enjoyable experiences with other people, usually relatives and friends, but, importantly, sometimes strangers                      
  • CENTRAL SUPPORT FUNCTIONS (CSUPFs): These industries support the proper operation of the CBFs and the CSFs. 

Figure 1 shows some of the types of venues/operations associated with each group of downtown functions. The CBFs are but one of the three essential functional groups performed in our downtowns, and office operations are but one part of the possible CBFs!

The Ebbs and Flows of Downtown Functions.

Since the Agoras of Greece, the Forums of Rome, and the village wells everywhere in antiquity, places of agglomeration have had Central Business Functions as well as Central Social Functions. Over time the strength and importance of these types of functions have varied. In the late 1970s and 1980s downtowns responded to the post WW II weakening of their CBFs and CSFs caused by the flight to the suburbs of White residents, corporate offices and HQs, and major retailers by building monofunctional office clusters filled with fortress type buildings. This established office buildings as a viable and desirable use in fear ridden times. However, the office centric districts were also deader than door nails most of weekdays — save for rush and lunch hours — and on weekends.

It is notable, that such large office clusters have not developed in the large city centers of Western Europe. Moreover, in the mid 19th Century downtowns in América and Western Europe saw the growth of strong retail functions, especially in the new format of department stores. (See Figure 2). Yet, in recent decades, the viability of department stores in our downtowns has diminished and  become increasingly uncertain.

 Starting in the late 1990s and accelerating in the 2000s, some of these office centric downtowns, such as Downtown Manhattan and Charlotte’s Center City, turned into much more activated downtowns, drawing local residents, and domestic  and international visitors. Sidewalks that had been  devoid of people for most of the day then saw platoons of pedestrians even in off-peak hours – see photos in Figure 3.

 Downtown housing began catching on in the 1990s. New housing units in, but mostly near these downtowns also brought in a pump priming flow of nearby patrons. The number of people who lived and worked in or near a large downtown grew, but there was considerable variation in the degree with which this was achieved. The ten downtowns listed in Figure 4 ranged between 40.7% in Philadelphia and 55.9% in Midtown New York in the number of people who lived within one mile of the downtown who also worked within that area. However, 60% of the 230 employment nodes studied, had under 20% of their residents also working in the area.

There also appears to be an important discrepancy in how much housing actually was going into the downtown core areas versus the more outlying areas of the downtown. Indeed, since these “downtown” residential areas were usually beyond the boundaries of the CBD they were often overlooked in recent discussions of CBD demises. In our largest downtowns offices tended to cluster near commuter rail and subway stations, housing less so. Center City in Philadelphia is having a faster economic recovery from the pandemic than Midtown Manhattan and it is noticeable that Center City’s housing has more strongly penetrated its core area than it has in Midtown Manhattan. During the crisis residents still went out for necessaries and pedestrian traffic and retail sales have done much better in downtown residential areas than in their office clusters.    

Large downtowns with insignificant housing in the core seem to be those struggling the most to bring workers and pedestrian traffic back to pre-crisis levels.

While the need for our large downtowns to become more multi-functional has been recognized by some for several decades, the recent pandemic has revealed that many have not done so, especially in their core areas.

Learning From Suburban Downtowns.     While employment center functions have long dominated our major downtowns, this has been far less the case in our suburban and independent rural cities. Their downtowns are seldom referred to as CBDs, because their CBFs are seldom dominated by a large office cluster. Yes, they often can have a relatively significant number of people working in them, but they seldom are the location for most of the people working in the town. As can be seen in Figure 5, in the cities with the most jobs – Dublin, Downers Grove, La Crosse and Appleton – their downtown areas only hold between 3% and 7% of them.

And yes, these suburban downtowns can have a significant number of office spaces, though they usually are neither in high rise buildings nor in a dense cluster. Many are scattered among second story and some storefront spaces. Given that the people who work in these towns commute overwhelmingly by auto, offices have not been prime drivers of TOD in these downtowns. That role has usually been played by housing.

Morristown is a very interesting town because it has long been a standout as a unique suburban downtown employment center, that even these days has about 43% of the city’s jobs. Yet years ago, its political and business leaders worried about its well-being because the offices alone where not taking the district where they wanted it to go. Today, the downtown is vibrant, well activated, with a slew of CSF venues and places such as a PAC that draws 200,000 people annually, The Morriston Green public space, about 100 eateries and watering holes that average over $1 million/yr in sales, and a very strong pamper niche adding much to its magnetism. It has just a few national retail chains, but many successful small boutiques. It is widely acknowledged that what turned this downtown around was not its offices or retail, but the 1,500 or so new residential units that were built between about 2000 and 2010, with more units added consistently since then. This pattern of new downtown housing sparking the development and growth of CSF venues is replicated in a growing number of affluent suburban downtowns across the nation. Cranford, NJ, for example, has built 366 Transit Oriented Development housing units since 2006 – see Figure 6 – boosting the vibrancy of Its CSF venues.  Out in the Midwest, take a  ride on a Metra train from downtown Chicago to Aurora and one finds town after town with lots of residential units near their rail stations.

An important lesson our large downtowns can learn from these successfully urbanized suburban downtowns is that strong, dominant CBFs are not required for a downtown to be strong and successful if it has strong CSFs!

Another important lesson is that housing near rail stations that are located in the downtown core may be a very sound idea. That would be in sharp contrast, for instance, with:

  • The current situation in Midtown Manhattan where the residential units within this downtown are  overwhelmingly at its edges and not its core
  • The State’s current  plan in NYC to raze the area around Penn Station between Sixth and Ninth Avenues from 30th to 34th Streets, and fill those properties with very large office buildings. (2)

Also, it may be a very sound idea for office spaces in our largest downtowns not to be part of any substantially sized office building cluster, but as parts of either clusters of mixed use buildings or mixed-use  clusters of buildings specializing in different functions. One way or another, however, it is essential that substantial housing be brought into the core office area. Happily, projects of this kind are happening. The rehabilitation of the 40 story Seneca One Tower in downtown Buffalo, NY is a great example of what such a mixed use building might contain. It combines 115 apartments, with office spaces, a food hall, a large gym and a craft brewery.(3)  In downtown Dallas the 50-story Thanksgiving Tower is undergoing a similar mixed-use transformation that will have a substantial number of residential units. In Lower Manhattan’s financial district, the conversion of One Wall Street from office to residential uses will provide over 500 units and be the largest such conversion in the city’s history.

The opportunities for such large conversions of existing office spaces may be relatively hard to find, but when they occur their impacts on a downtown can be substantial in terms of generating  non office worker foot traffic and the businesses to serve it. 

The problem with converting most large modern office buildings to residential uses is reportedly their large floor plates with most space distant from windows. So far, the mixed use conversions have the offices still occupying these large floors, while the conversion to housing occur on smaller and usually higher floors. One might wonder if some property owner might try a mixed use program on the larger floors, with spaces along the windowed perimeter taking on residential uses, and the remaining window-distant spaces retaining their office uses?

Affluent CSF Driven Suburban Downtowns Will Recover Quickly and Strongly from the Crisis

Morristown and many other wealthy suburban downtowns are also primed for recovery because they suffered far less from the Covid crisis than have their big city cousins:

  • They were much more dependent on residents than office workers or domestic and international tourists than most of our large downtowns
  • They have lots of new housing units within their downtown cores, often within a 10 minute walk of their commuter rail station.
  • Their restaurants and other CSF venues were and are bringing people downtown
  • Their pedestrian traffic returned much quicker than it has in our large downtowns
  • Any tourist flows, are overwhelmingly domestic, and are returning quickly.

In addition, the crisis has positively impacted on their  assets:

  • It has significantly increased the number of residents who work remotely and are now part of the downtown’s important daytime population. Conversations with several suburban downtown managers found that merchants definitely have noted their presence.
  • It has accelerated a trend that was already apparent prior to the crisis of Millennials in search of affordable housing and good schools moving from their region’s central city greater downtown areas to the suburbs. Unfortunately, this trend also has a downside – rising housing costs.

Metuchen, NJ is another downtown positioned for a quick recovery and demonstrates many of their characteristics. It started a major revitalization effort in 2016 and since then has seen about a $169 million invested in the downtown, with 397 new residential units being built. Many of these units are near the commuter rail station that has direct connections to New York, Newark, and Trenton.

Metuchen’s residents have high median household incomes $128,619 and 62.5% have a BA degree or higher.

Between March of 2020 and March 2021, 33 downtown businesses closed, while 38 opened. Interestingly, 55% of the new businesses were related to CSFs—they are already leading the way to recovery.  Here again, these downtowns provide a useful lesson for our larger downtowns.

ENDNOTES

1. See for example: Emily Badger and Quoctrung BuiJu. “The Downtown Office District Was Vulnerable Even Before Covid.” New York Times. July 7, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/07/07/upshot/downtown-office-vulnerable-even-before-covid.html

2. Justin Davidson. “Hochul’s Penn Station Plan Is the Worst Kind of Urban Renewal.” Curbed Jan. 26, 2022. https://www.curbed.com/2022/01/hochuls-penn-station-plan-is-bad-old-style-urban-renewal.html

3. C.J. Hughes. “SQUARE FEET: Buffalo’s ‘Other Story’ Is Told in Redevelopment and Growth.” New York Times. July 3,2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/03/business/buffalo-economy-shooting.html


 

A Search for a Clearer and More Useful Vocabulary for Talking About and Analyzing Downtowns

By N. David Milder

Over the past decade I have become increasingly focused on what I have been calling Central Social Districts (CSDs).  The simple analytical framework I’ve been developing saw downtowns being composed of two major components: Central Business Districts (CBDs) and CSDs. However, over the past year or so, email discussions with members of The ADRR board, and an interview by Rob Steuteville at CNU’s Public Square have prompted me to take a much closer look at the vocabulary we use to describe and analyze our downtowns. My objective in this article is to start a discussion of the topic. I don’t claim to have definitive answers, but certainly aspire to getting such a discussion off to a very good start.

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The “Unbonding” of a Growing Number of Creative Workers From Their Employers Can Impact Our Downtowns

By N. David Milder

Introduction

In recent months I have again confirmed my conclusion that remote work is here to stay, and that it will undoubtedly impact our large and suburban downtowns. In the past, I felt this was the case because:

  • So many more employees now have tried and liked remote work. They also have become much better at it
  • Major corporations are adapting their operations to it and investing substantial sums in equipment and programming to help assure its optimal performance. This is even happening in major companies whose CEOs were initially opposed to remote work
  • There is much wider acceptance of remote work. Importantly, those who engage in it are far less likely to be seen as slackers or second-class employees.

Recently, I have also come to see the critical importance of remote working being a response to needs other than those related to the pandemic. This is critically important because new or heightened trends will only persist past the crisis that impacts them if non-crisis related needs are there to sustain substantial future interest in them. That critical non-crisis related need for remote work, I would argue, is related to the “unbonding” of creatives working for corporations. Just as there are forces that bond together atoms, ions, or molecules to form chemical compounds, so there are forces that make creative employees bond or unbond to the companies that employ them. The pandemic has reinforced those that press toward unbonding. This unbonding may not mean the termination of the relationship between creative employees and their employers. However, it certainly does mean a change in it, and a loosening of the bonds between them so that the workers have much more control over their work and personal lives. Remote work allows the workers to have greater control while still maintaining a meaningful relationship with their employers. In turn, remote work allows employers to retain and attract desperately needed highly talented employees.

It increasingly looks like remote work will have serious negative impacts on our large office dependent downtowns, and potential positive impacts for many suburban and some rural regional commercial centers, i.e., those at the center of small metro areas. The time has come in the downtown revitalization field to look more seriously about how the negative impacts of remote work in our major downtowns can be offset, and how its positive impacts in the suburban and rural areas can best be leveraged.

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TOWARD MORE SUSTAINABLE DOWNTOWN AND MAIN STREET TOURIST INDUSTRIES

By N David Milder

TOURISM: BOON OR BANE?

Back in 2018, I posted an article with that title to my Downtown Curmudgeon blog. In retrospect, I think it did a fairly decent job of explaining why, though tourism can certainly be very helpful, it is not always a desirable strategic path for economic growth and community well-being. Recently, events such the public disorder caused by spring break tourists have also signaled that not all types of tourism might mesh with a host community’s needs and wants.

Also, there can simply be just too many tourists, and they can threaten to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Sometimes it’s their sheer numbers, other times it is also their behaviors. For example, these days local officials in Europe:

“…want to redirect the streams of tourists, as officials in Rome are trying to do, or even to limit them, as Dubrovnik is doing. Barcelona is no longer approving new hotels, Paris has strictly regulated Airbnb and other apartment rental platforms….”  Der Spiegel staff. “Paradise Lost: How Tourists Are Destroying the Places They Love.”  Spiegel Online.

In response to the stresses and damages tourism can cause, the concept of sustainable tourism emerged around 1990. Initially it focused on ecological issues at scenic places, but in recent years it has been expanded to also look at a location’s socio-cultural charteristics. For example, for one business consultant in Asheville, NC, sustainable tourism means: .”… making a low impact on the environment and the local culture while generating future employment for local people and ensuring a positive experience for locals and tourists alike.” See Max Hunt, Making local tourism sustainable, April 23, 2016.

Back in 2004, a plan for sustainable tourism prepared for the Downeast region of Maine noted that: “  We know that the vibrancy of such an industry (tourism) depends on the quality of the natural and cultural experiences offered. We also know that Downeast Maine has an abundance of such experiences and resources. However, tourism can be a destructive force when not properly planned or managed.”   (See: Down East Sustainable Tourism Initiative Year 2010)

Implicit in this notion of sustainability is that tourism needs, in some way, to be properly managed. This, of course, carries along with it the potential for a lot of political opposition.

In my Boom or Bane article, I also noted that “…too may downtown and Main Street leaders leap at a tourist growth strategy without properly thinking through its possible drawbacks as well as its advantages.” The objective of this article is to try to stimulate and facilitate such thinking. Considering how tourism can be properly managed to make it sustainable should be an essential part of that thinking. To my ken, while here in the USA some smaller communities and scenic regions have adopted sustainable tourism plans, tourism leaders in our larger cities and downtowns have not yet picked up on the need for sustainable tourism. Perhaps it is time they did.  

TYPES OF TOURISM

Some good starting points for understanding tourism’s complexity are that:

  • There are many different types of tourism
  • Towns and downtowns can have combinations of them
  • Some may have inherent conflicts with others 
  • They each may vary in the way they reward or harm local business and residents

Rather than vaingloriously trying to present a definitive typology of tourism, some examples of the different types will be offered here to demonstrate their existence.

Tourism Defined by Type of Stay.  Vacation homeowners (e.g., Palm Beach, the Berkshires, the Hamptons), multi-night visitors (e.g., Los Vegas, Santa Fe, New Orleans, NYC, Paris), and day trippers (e.g., Coney Island, and Belmont’s “Little Italy” in The Bronx) can create distinct types of tourism that reflect their differing incomes and spending patterns, knowledge and concern about the community, and incentives for orderly behaviors. Their impacts on local retailers and service providers are also likely to vary. All will need restaurants, but to varying degrees. Homeowners and day trippers will not need hotels. Some vacation homeowners will spend considerable parts of a year in these homes and come closer to having a range of retail and personal service needs similar to those of local residents than the overnighters or day trippers, but others will hardly ever be at one vacation home because they have so many. Those that do spend time in one location also are far more likely to be concerned about protecting the social and physical aspects of their vacation community, and to know about and be susceptible to local social and legal pressures to maintain local norms and values than the overnighters or day trippers.

In contrast, as a recent report from Key West demonstrates, lots of day trippers – in this instance from cruise ships – can have strongly adverse impacts on a downtown: “On streets where art galleries, fine restaurants and specialty shops once flourished, vendors hawk bawdy T-shirts and stores advertise ‘Everything inside $5.’” In Woodstock NY, town officials shut the popular Big Deep and Little Deep swimming holes because of the “littering and messes left behind by outside visitors.”

Defined by Type of Arrival/Departure. This is a subset of day tripper tourism. Some day trippers will travel to a location alone or in small groups, and they usually are easily absorbed into the places they are visiting. However, others arrive in a bus, or a group of buses, or a cruise ship, or a group of cruise ships. The infusion of the larger groups can mean the sudden entry of hundreds or thousands of tourists into a relatively small area. In such areas, such as downtown Key West, downtown Hamilton in Bermuda, or  Piazza San Marco in Venice they can flood the place with people in a way that changes how they normally operate, and consequently robs them of much of the charm that made them attractive and famous.

Defined by Type of Activity Sought.  Most local flows of tourists probably are based on the opportunities offered in a location to engage in various types of activities, and the experiences they offer:

  • To visit scenic sites likes the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls
  • To engage heavily in some type of athletic or cultural activity such as to go skiing in Aspen or Killington, or play golf at Pinehurst, NC, or St Andrews in Scotland, or see Broadway shows or visit museums in NYC, or to enjoy the beaches along Florida’s long coastline
  • To do business – in many large CBDs this can be the largest source of tourists
  • To gamble, e.g., in Las Vegas or Monaco
  • To have sex : e.g., in “red light districts” such as:  De Wallen in Amsterdam; Soi Cowboy in Bangkok; Frankfurt, Germany; Montmartre – Paris; Hamburg, Germany; Villa Tinto – Antwerp; Broadway – San Francisco 
  • To legally buy and use drugs. Coffeehouses in Amsterdam can sell pot that can be consumed on the premises. It should be noted that the legalizations of various vices, e.g., drugs, and prostitution, are motivated by needs to get them under control. Gambling is more often motivated to raise government revenues.
  • To party with groups of people. This might occur in a wide variety of indoor places such as hotel rooms, restaurants, night clubs and bars, but also in many public areas such as sidewalks, streets, parks and beaches. Since partying often means consuming large amounts of alcoholic beverages and/or drugs, when it occurs in public places there is a strong built in probability that some level of public disorderly conduct will occur. Problems, such as the recent riots in Miami Beach, or those in Palm Springs back in 1986, or in Daytona Beach in 1955, or in Seattle in 2003, or Columbus, OH also in 2003 can occur when the levels of partiers and disorderly conduct get too high in public spaces.    

Defined by Expectations of Behaviors. How a town promotes tourism by signaling the types of behaviors it permits and/or values can have a big impact on the type of tourist it attracts, and how they will behave. It is no surprise that the tag line used to market Las Vegas, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” was so successful.  Nor is it surprising that the bon mots for promoting New Orleans are  “let the good times roll.” Both overtly suggest that at least a little bit of naughtiness mixed with uninhibited festivity can be found by visitors in their cities. This theme then can become a key element of not only the image the tourism promoters are projecting, but also a crucial component in their city’s or downtown’s functional local culture.

However, the theme of naughtiness and uninhibited festivity can also meaningfully be projected by the types of behaviors visibly tolerated within a district such as:

  • Littering and public urination
  • Public drinking and drug use
  • Public drunken or drugged disorderly conduct
  • Sidewalks, street beds, and public spaces taken over by disorderly people.

While projecting such a covert image may indeed attract tourists for whom partying is a high priority activity, it conversely can make many local residents and workers, and potential tourists see the area as too disorderly and fear engendering to visit. For example, such disorderly behavior by spring break tourists in Palm Springs in 1986 provoked strong complaints by local residents that led to municipal leaders working against attracting spring break tourists.

SOME DIAGNOSTIC QUESTIONS

Answering the following questions can help local leaders to get on the path of creating and maintaining a sustainable local tourist industry.

Will//are the positive benefits of tourism be/being widely shared by residents and town businesses, while negative benefits will be/are small, adversely impacting very few residents and businesses? 

Way back in 1936, the political scientist Harold Lasswell postulated that to properly understand politics it’s extremely helpful to ask the basic question: who gets what, when and how?  Its application to tourism-based economic development strategies and programs also can be very revealing. We can expect that the answers to this question will vary depending on the type or types of tourism being considered or already implemented, and the socio-economic-cultural conditions in each specific town or downtown. Answering the what, when, and how question should provide a lot of good, evidenced-based insights into which parts of the local tourist industry needs management to become sustainable.

The What. If tied to the understanding that the “what” includes other things than the variables generally used in input-output model impact assessments – e.g., increased number of jobs, and revenues of local households and businesses — then answering Lasswell’s questions can greatly facilitate a proper assessment of the impacts of an existing or proposed tourism program or strategy, and its true value to the community.

The Use of I-O Models. Most of the established types of impacts that tourism can have on a community are beyond the variables and explanatory vocabulary that input-output models are confined to. For example, tourism can: 

  • Increase jobs, but they can be low-paying or decent paying, sustainable or unsustainable. More on this below.
  • Produce more  business opportunities, but also lead local businesses to favor tourist patrons over those who are local residents
  • Create more interesting shops and entertainments, but also higher retail and restaurant prices
  • Heighten demand for local housing and commercial properties, but also produce significantly higher prices for both, Affordable rental housing, even for those with relatively substantial incomes has become a serious issue in our downtowns, especially in our largest cities. A study in 2014 found that:” On average, more than half (52 percent) of all rental households spend more than 30 percent of income on housing in the top 25 cities.” SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2014 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data (Table B25070 in “Family Housing Affordability in U.S. Cities, Governing, November 2015). In some cities, like Miami Beach, much needed affordable units are be changed into Airbnb and short-term rental uses. And to repeat: Barcelona is no longer approving new hotels, while Paris has strictly regulated Airbnb and other apartment rental platforms
  • Increase local tax revenues, but also increase the need for municipal services such as sanitation, police and fire —  and the costs of providing them
  • Create a loss of the community’s character. For example, during the pandemic, concern about this has emerged in the core of Amsterdam among local residents, Its red light district and coffeehouses selling pot, and its streets jammed with foreign tourists has made local residents wonder whose city it is, and what is still left for them to enjoy. Similar concerns have also arisen in many other European cities such as Barcelona and Venice.  It also has happened in many relatively small charming towns here in the USA where so many tourists flock to visit that their numbers and behaviors threaten the very charteristics of the place that made it an attractive tourist destination. For example, in Peterborough, NH, the  population has a very strong self and town identity. An assessment of its tourism found that for residents “a main priority was maintaining a town for the comfort of the local population and not for tourists.“ Peterborough’s charming and preserved  “New England atmosphere,” its history and old buildings, its well-known artists’ colony, the Lowell Colony, are major attractions for tourists.(See: Tomoko Tsundoda and Samuel Mendlinger, “Economic and Social Impact of Tourism on a Small Town: Peterborough New Hampshire.”  J. Service Science & Management, 2009, 2: 61-70 Published Online June 2009 in SciRes)  These are quality of life (QoL) type concerns, not about increasing the wealth of the locality, or how that increase is distributed.
  • Increase traffic and poor air quality; these are also QoL type concerns
  • Generate significantly more crimes associated with public disorder, such as public prankstering, littering, public urination, public drinking and drug use, vandalism, and rioting. This, too, is a QoL concern. One thing we know from the history of our downtowns is that public disorder and heightened public fears can have severe negative impacts on local businesses, property values, and a district’s image.
  • Too many tourists can severely diminish a downtown’s walkability, thereby making pedestrian activity far less enjoyable, and seriously wounding the district’s image as a desirable place to be. See:  Nicole Gelinas. “Planet Travel. Globalization has created a tourist boom in world cities—but masses of tourists create new challenges.” City Journal. August 31, 2018,

This analytical tool also is usually inappropriate for assessing tourism’s impact on a town or downtown because their geographies are far too small for an I-O model to be properly utilized.

Downtown leaders need to realize that some of their tourism attractions may have much more favorable impacts on some dimensions at the county or regional level than on their smaller localities. The expenditures of local theater or performing arts center, for example, can account for about half of its economic impacts on employment, and business and household revenues, but most of those jobs and revenues may well go to people and businesses located outside of the theater’s town or downtown. However, their impacts on real estate may be very local. See ND Milder, “The Impacts of Arts Events Venues on Small Downtowns,” Economic Development Journal 17 (4), 37.  

The known potential impacts listed above suggests that the “whats” that people and businesses in a locality can get from tourism can be positive or negative, and in many instances they can be conflicting.

 Tourism as an Engine for Retail Growth. My observations, and interactions with potential clients over several decades, strongly suggest that tourism is very often seen as a potential key engine for retail growth in the revitalization strategies prepared for our downtowns. This point consequently deserves some special attention.  In all too many instances, especially where the strategic focus is on gambling based tourism, it even has been seen as the growth engine for the whole local economy. Atlantic City and the new casinos in the Catskills in NY are good examples of this. This is especially true for those that are smaller and medium sized communities, and most likely to be hindered by trade areas with low spending potentials. However, in many states – see table above – retail only accounts for around 10% to 15% of tourist expenditures, and when the percentage is higher, the actual expenditure amounts, as in MS, are still often relatively low, or the expenditures for recreation and entertainment are low, as in MS and NC, so the retail percentage becomes de facto higher.  

While tourism so often seems attractive as a retail growth strategy, a strong argument can be made that downtowns that already have a robust retail presence are much better positioned to attract tourist shoppers. This hypothesis is supported by the high levels of tourist retail sales that can be reached in our larger downtowns with famed retail districts such as Madison Ave and Fifth Ave in NYC, Rodeo Drive in L.A., North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and Newberry Street in Boston. For example, a 2018 report on the impact of tourism in NYC found that:

“Tourists account for 18 percent of all Visa transactions at retail stores in the city. They account for an even higher share of sales at the department stores (48 percent), electronic stores (35 percent), and sporting goods stores (23 percent).”

Of course, those high levels of tourist sales are also probably strongly influenced by the incredibly high number of tourists that visited the city pre-pandemic. According to NYC & Co’s annual report:  “In 2019, NYC tourism hit a record high—66.6 million individual trips, with about $47.4 billion generated in direct spending for the city ….”

NYC and several other major downtowns also attract large numbers of foreign tourists who tend to spend significantly more in retail shops than domestic tourists.

As the recent pandemic has shown, downtown retail that is heavily dependent on tourist dollars is more susceptible to the negative impacts of substantially decreased tourist flows – particularly form abroad – resulting from  severe economic recessions, natural disasters, and diseases.

Contrary to many situations where tourism may seem tempting as a potential retail growth engine, it is unlikely to be a viable, productive strategy in downtowns where the existing retail is weak, and the current tourist traffic is negligible. Such districts have no product to sell, and no market to sell to. The best way out of this situation is to first build an attractive array of retailers that are focused on local customers and products – then, there may be a potential for attracting new tourist retail customers. Also,  tourism is then best strategically positioned as an additional source of some retail revenues, but not as the primary source.

Tourism as an Engine for Job Growth. Job growth is an important metric in the economic development field, especially when it comes to justifying investments in new programs and projects aimed at stimulating or implementing growth. Tourism’s ability to produce jobs, however, is rather complicated, and worthy of a closer look.

The strongest argument I’ve seen for tourism being a strong engine not only for job growth, but also for fairly good jobs came in a report by the Center for an Urban Future, that claimed  NYC in 2018 had:

“ …nearly as many accommodations jobs, which pay $62,000 per year on average, as jobs in manufacturing, which pay an average of $58,000. To be sure, many of the jobs in the sector offer relatively low wages, at least to start. But tens of thousands of tourism positions provide critical entry points into the labor force for a highly diverse range of New Yorkers. Indeed, no other sector offers as many accessible jobs, with 91 percent of tourism jobs open to workers with less than a bachelor’s degree.”  It also claimed that tourism was driving NYC’s economic future. See: “DESTINATION NEW YORK: Spurred by 30 million more tourists over the past two decades, tourism is now driving NYC’s economic future.” May 2018, p.3.

The claim that “tourism is now driving NYC’s economic future” was startling. That the average pay in the industry now was better than that in NYC’s manufacturing industries and at $62,000/yr was very impressive. The claim that no other industry offers as many accessible jobs to those without a college degree was also credible and noteworthy.   

I then had a quibble about the use of average incomes since in an industry such as tourism, the difference between its median and average salaries could be significant, and the median could tell us more about how many of those workers had relatively low salaries. Still, the median household income in NYC in 2018 was  $63,799, the average was $67,844. The average salaries in NYC’s tourism industry were only about 9% lower than the city average household income, suggesting they may be providing close to a survivable income.

But Covid19 drastically changed things in 2020, especially in NYC. It hit very hard the jobs in the food and lodging industries, with 250,000 of them disappearing, over half of those that existed at the start of 2020. Similar losses occurred all across the nation, wherever the pandemic wreaked economic decline. And this points to some of the built-in vulnerabilities of a tourism job growth engine:

  • Tourist employment is very susceptible to economic downturns caused by depressions and recessions, natural disasters, and disease
  • According to BLS : The industry with the highest percentage of workers earning hourly wages at or below the federal minimum wage was leisure and hospitality (11 percent). About three-fifths of all workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage were employed in this industry, almost entirely in restaurants and other food services. For many of these workers, tips may supplement the hourly wages received. A large portion of the jobs associated with tourism just do not pay that well.
  • A closer look at the occupations associated with tourism, such as hotel employees, shows they do not have high salaries, e.g., in the sample of eight cities listed in the table above the median is only $38,970,  with a low of $37,038 and a high of $48,793. Importantly, none come close to providing by themselves a livable wage.
  • While in our major cities with robust tourist industries such as NYC, Washington DC, LA, and NYC there are peaks and ebbs in the flow of visitors, a significant flow is usually maintained year round, so employment has some stability. In smaller towns and cities, especially if the tourists are attracted to activity opportunities that are weather dependent, such as skiing and water sports, the tourist flows are seasonal, and so is the employment.  

Provincetown, MA, is a good example of such seasonality. It has a population under 3,000 year round, but can have 65,000 people visiting its galleries, restaurants, and beaches. “But come late fall, the beaches and bars mostly empty out. And it is not just tourists who decamp. Most second-home owners pack up, too. And, increasingly, so do people who once made Provincetown their home year-round. These days, just 2,800 hardy souls endure here through the winter. As a result — with housing and year-round jobs increasingly scarce — Provincetown is hollowing out. The winter population dropped 14 percent between 2000 and 2010. Families have left or have avoided settling here in the first place. The high school closed a few years ago.”  See: Katharine Q. Seelye, “Welcome to Provincetown. Winter Population: Dwindling.” NYTimes. Dec. 20, 2015.

Similar seasonality is found in Greenport, NY. It is located on the North Fork at the eastern end of Long Island, and has a significant waterfront with docking facilities for pleasure boats, a small fishing fleet and a ferry to Shelter Island, and a waterfront park that attracts over 300,000 visitors a year.. It also has the terminus for an important line of the Long Island Railroad. Within easy drives of the village are over 40 wineries that attract heavy tourist traffic to their tasting rooms. There are three of historical sites abutting or near the park including a working blacksmith shop and a maritime museum. It is a significant tourist destination and transit point. For example, an annual three-day Maritime Festival reportedly draws about 40,000 visitors and the less frequent, multi-day Tall Ships events can attract over 60,000. However, it only has a year round residential population of 2,200,and many of the shops, sometimes even including the local supermarket, close for the winter. Of course, their jobs go dormant, too.

Is the town primarily concerned about how tourism can improve its quality of life or in maximizing the wealth of its residents and businesses?

This question is meant to flesh out a community’s growth values that too often really have not been clarified or adequately discussed in public. However, if tourism is to be beneficially managed, clarity about these values must be achieved.

Of course, QoL and wealth are closely related topics, and some might argue that at the community level, wealth should be grown so that it can support a better QoL. My field observations, however,  strongly suggest that when tourism’s objective  is only seen as growing the community’s wealth, then it is far more likely to take on characteristics that make it more unsustainable, and more likely to conflict with the type of QoL that local residents have or are striving for.

Sure, at the real estate project level, tourist projects will regularly need to undergo an environmental review, but those reviews are often unlikely to cover some important  issues that might be disturbing to current and potential local residents, such as the attraction of tourists who have a high probability of behaving in a disorderly manner, or the loss of community identity.

Also, when a town’s tourism’s primary objective is growing wealth, the project permission’s and approvals process is more likely to adhere to the “bigger is better” adage, as well as “the more expensive a project is, the better it is” rule.

When wealth maximization is the ruling norm, then the town is more unlikely to have or to create a local tourist industry that is sustainable.

The Over-Tourism Question: Are there instances where there are just too many tourists in the town, and their presence is changing in undesirable ways the appearance of the community/downtown, its character, or how these places work?

As noted above, this is the question that is being asked by municipal leaders all over Europe, who are concerned about the strong negative impacts that simply having too many people in a relatively small public space can have. Even the Vatican is concerned about the severe overcrowding by the 6 million visitors annually to its museums – see photo below.

Here in the USA, concerns about over-tourism among downtown leaders has not so far emerged. This is probably due to their being correctly trained to believe that downtowns are successful, full of vibrancy and shoppers when there are high levels of pedestrian traffic. For instance, the managers of Times Square proudly publicize  that:  “Nearly 360,000 pedestrians enter the heart of Times Square each day. On the busiest days, Times Square has pedestrian counts as high as 450,000.”  Those pedestrian flows are equal to the entire populations of the 44th and 55th largest cities in the USA! In one day!

With most with things in our lives, there is a threshold above which a situation is deemed too much, and undesirable. Too much champagne, and one gets drunk. Too much chocolate, and one gets fat. Too many people in a boat, and it might sink, and people may drown. Drive at 150 MPH and one might have a tragic accident. But downtown leaders here in the USA do not seem to have found any pedestrian or visitor count that is too much because of their ill effects. Might 360,000 to 450,000 people trapsing through a relatively small urban area be too many? Or 15,000 passing by one corner in an hour?

The same thing can be said about many of our major tourist attractions, and particularly  here in NYC, where being “world class” is a mantle many seek and proudly proclaim.   Prior to the pandemic, for example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art had over 6.5 million visitors annually, and MoMA had over 2.2 million.  And at both museums, tourists accounted for 75% of their visitors. The net result at these museums are  overly crowded galleries, much like rush hour subway cars, where it is habitually hard to see the art either from the distance one would like or for the length of time one would prefer. This unpleasantness is compounded by the too frequent jostlings from other guests, and the annoying behaviors of people from other cultures, be they domestic or foreign. Also unpleasant are the nasty world class lines to get into too often badly maintained restrooms, or to check and retrieve your coat. Nevertheless, the managers of these museums show by their lack of appropriate action no interest in improving the visitors’ art appreciation experience, yet they yearn for even larger attendance that they can brag about. Their building expansions are like adding more lanes to our highways –they just increase the amount of space that will be filled  with overly dense visitation.

Similarly, about 66% of the eight million tickets sold annually pre pandemic for Broadway shows went to tourists, and mainly to those who could afford relatively high prices. So, while these museums and Broadway shows are world class, their overwhelmingly dominant use by tourists leaves many NYC city residents feeling that these parts of the city are no longer theirs, but taken over by those “from afar.” Some question whether these residents have a right to this sense of psychological possession and identification, while others, such as Jane Jacobs,  might argue that such a sense makes for strong communities.   

Public Disorder Question 1. Do tourists primarily want to party, or to look, listen, taste and touch to appreciate the town’s non-party assets?

During the 1970s and 1980s, public disorder and the fear of becoming a crime victim were very strong factors in the steep declines of our downtowns. As I have recently written, the problem of disorder now is resurging across the nation and in a perhaps even more powerful form, since it is much more multifaceted.  Consequently, the types of tourism that are highly likely to cause problems of public disorder need to be looked at very closely.

Where large numbers of tourists are intent on partying in public, problems of disorderly conduct are very likely. That can be very offputting to local residents as well as to other tourists who are not as intent on partying. Lots of parting tourists also means high municipal spending for public safety services than would otherwise be needed.

Naughty Los Vegas is an isolated counter example. It’s residential growth was based on the tourism growth generated by its gambling, live and let live social mores, and reputation of mob involvement. New residents knew the type of town they were moving to.

What downtown experts have learned and taught for decades is that how the people act and look when walking on a district’s sidewalks, or in its public spaces, or going in and out of its buildings has an enormous influence on the image the public at large holds of that downtown. It not only sets up expectations in the minds of observers about how people in these places will behave – as do the related  signs of disorder discussed by George Kelling and James Wilson, and Wesley Skogan – but also signals how the observers themselves probably would be allowed to behave in that locality. 

In some instances, otherwise seemingly harmless behaviors can be disorderly, but then creep into more serious criminal behaviors. In 1986, for example, Palm Springs had its most serious spring break student riot, after which town leaders decided on an anti spring beak policy. But the riot started off with the simple, prankster-like use of squirt guns, that then quickly escalated to dumping water balloons into expensive convertibles, and tearing off the tops of bikini’s worn by women in cars. Cruising rioters also blocked major roadways.

In other instances, as in Miami beach these days, toys such as slingshots, jet skis and          e-scooters can become nuisances that require regulation. 

Public Disorder Question 2. Does or will the town’s marketing feature the community’s scenic, social and cultural assets or how easy it is for tourists to party in the town?

The objective of this question is to clarify and make public some of the impacts the town’s tourist marketing is having on some of its QoL problems. This might lead to a change in the marketing, or it might spark more effective mitigation programs, such as more police who are well trained to deal with public disorder issues, or new ordinances that regulate the behaviors allowed in public places. For example, one might argue towns that market themselves as great places “to party,” and then have partiers riot, in a real sense, have been asking for it.    

Public Disorder Question 3. Are the town’s laws, and their enforcement, that govern its public spaces and sidewalks tolerant of public drinking, drug use and sale, and other forms disorderly conduct or intolerant of such behaviors?

These practices can have a big impact. It is important that town and/or downtown leaders be cognizant of them so they can be changed and improved.

They were used effectively in Palm Springs: “In the years after the riot, city leaders and police would intentionally sabotage spring break with irksome laws intended to chase away college-age tourists.” They banned thong bikinis, throwing water balloons, and shooting squirt guns.  Poolside drinking was limited, and “a special $15 fee that was added to all police citations, but only during the 10 days of spring break.” At spring break time, over 200 concrete barricades intentionally created a downtown traffic jam designed to frustrate spring break cruisers.

Sometimes, the solutions are less punitive in character. For example, lots of people walking in the street beds and congesting traffic is  a sign of disorder. But if the sidewalks are narrow and or being used by outdoor dining or retailing, then enlarging the sidewalks can be a very viable solution. Another could be providing well activated public spaces where these street pedestrians can engage in enjoyable and socially productive activities, such as those available in Bryant Park.

Is the town committed to making its tourism sustainable, and have the appropriate policies, programs, and regulatory tools needed to manage it? If not, can it create a sustainable tourism program?

Sustainable tourism does not appear organically, though the unsustainable version seems to be able to do so. It requires intention, leadership, resources, knowledge, political support, and strong coalition building. It will likely have many well placed and influential opponents, most likely including those who own or otherwise are benefiting from the unsustainable tourism assets.

If the campaign for sustainable tourism poses its benefits largely in terms of public goods like clean air and water, and general quality of life,  that everyone can enjoy, and for which the needs are not that immediate, it will likely languish. People will likely take a free ride and let others try to make it happen. (See: Mancur Olson. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard University Press, 1971). To build a winning coalition within the community, it will have to offer meaningful benefits for those related needs that are being felt with some strength and immediacy. The answers to the who gets what, when and how question can be very relevant in this context.

Disparate groups within the community will have to be brought together. Local businesses who are not benefiting from tourism, but are suffering negative influences on their revenues by the noise, traffic, and visitor behaviors tourism has brought in may well support efforts to better publicly manage the industry. Some tourist oriented businesses that do not require large numbers of customers also  may support sustainable tourism. Those operators probably focus on:

  • Customers who are wealthier
  • Not primarily tourists, except when the tourists are mostly wealthy and numerous
  • Otherwise, vacation home owners among the tourists
  • Nonparty-oriented tourists
  • Customers who are likely to be concerned about public order

Residents who are being sufficiently adversely impacted by the local tourism to want to do something about it are likely to be major supporters. They have passed the activation threshold and specific sustainable tourism remediation steps might give them needed direction, while the general sustainability framework can give them political arguing points. These motivating adverse impacts can be related to noise and traffic issues as well as disorderly public behaviors and the overcrowding of public places. Parents with preschool children and seniors, important segments of many smaller downtown populations, are prone to being adversely affected by tourists behaving in a disorderly manner. Major owners of residential properties are also likely to support sustainable tourism efforts.

How many office workers reacted to the scene in Times Square may be indicative of how they will react to other overly tourist utilized public spaces in our large CBDs. Many of these office workers did not like the overcrowding caused by the tourists because it interfered with their ability to get to and from work, and to get food and do chores at lunchtime. Nor were they delighted by the naughty costumes and behaviors of many Times Square habitués. That suggests they, too, may be strong supporters of sustainable tourism programs, especially when it comes to the issue of public disorderly behavior.

Under sustainable tourism many of the issues that need resolution will be political in nature, with important groups in the community often taking seriously conflicting positions.  These disputes will probably be best dealt with if they are informed by local “technocrats,” like planning, public safety, and economic development departments, as well as by the interested parties, but the actual decision-making power should rest in the hands of local elected officials who can be held accountable by voters.  

Recovering From the Pandemic Will Provide a Rare Opportunity to Create Sustainable Downtown and Main Street Tourism Industries

Crises are Janus-like events, creating opportunities as well as problems. Tourism across the nation has been in steep decline. Many managers and owners in the industry are being forced to think about their future, whether they wanted to or not. In communities where tourism has been an important economic engine, many political leaders are probably also thinking about the industry’s future in their towns. This creates a real opportunity to make tourism in their communities more sustainable.

However, the window for this opportunity will not stay open for long. The pent up demand to travel is strong – planes and hotels are already beginning to fill up, and reservations for the remainder of 2021 are getting harder and harder to get.

Now is the time to recognize if your town’s tourism industry needs to be made more sustainable, and then to take the steps needed to make that happen.