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Making a Successful Downtown 

By Scott Mooneyham, NCLM Director of Public Affairs

With the resurgence of downtowns in small towns and big cities across North Carolina, retailers are paying increasing attention to them as potential locations and markets for their customers. Hilary Greenberg, president of Greenberg Development Services in Charlotte and a national expert on attracting and retaining retail businesses, says that the importance of downtowns to local economies has become much more accepted by the range of actors – from business owners to elected leaders –who can play a critical role in those downtowns’ success. "We’re not having to sell why downtown is important as much as we did 10 or 15 years ago," Greenberg said during a presentation at this year’s NC Main Street Conference held in March in Goldsboro.

The setting for Greenberg’s presentation and the conference provided a nice point of emphasis for her remarks. Goldsboro’s Center Street, with its landmark City Hall Building and restored Paramount Theatre, has been transformed by a Streetscape project that has made the area more attractive to businesses and the 

pedestrian traffic that can help support them. (See Goldsboro’s Streetscape Project Revitalizes Downtown, Pg 23.) Greenberg said community leaders recognize how a vibrant downtown creates jobs and grows the tax base, improve a town’s quality of life, and attract millennials.

She cautioned, though, that healthy downtown commercial districts will require some combination of a critical mass of businesses, mixed business uses, market demand, pedestrian traffic, and supportive landlords and local governments. Examples she cited supporting those factors included businesses that sell specialty products that draw customers from outside the town, a business mix that will include some businesses catering to millennials and others catering to seniors, and district designs that encourage walking. "Most (communities) do not have all of these," Greenberg said.

While restaurants and entertainment venues can serve as anchors for downtowns, the presentation looked at smaller projects that can also help push consumers to downtown areas, whether once-a-month street carnivals in warm-weather months or something as simple as a food truck. "You can sometimes drive business recruitment by little projects," she said.

Greenberg’s talk also examined the type of preparation that downtown developers often use to try to create a successful and economically vibrant downtown. That preparation often includes a market analysis, an assessment of the commercial base and a strategic plan. In doing those things, cities and their downtown development organizations should become information clearinghouses for business owners and potential downtown investors, Greenberg said.

The data coming from a market analysis is something that might not otherwise be available to businesses, including things like changing demographics, traffic counts, day-time employment, and sales potential from seasonal non-residents. The same can be true for a commercial base assessment that evaluates available building sites, takes into account existing lease terms, and even looks at code updating-related costs. A strategic plan is an opportunity to gain buy-in from stakeholders, including property owners, real estate agents, elected officials and civic organizations.

Greenberg said a successful approach can also involve the creation of a referral network that includes property owners, real estate agents, area developers, media, financial institutions, local businesses and major employers. Building that type of contact list can be essential to identify marketing and recruiting opportunities. Discussing successful marketing, she said creative storefront signage – rather than typical for sale signs – is one way to encourage interest and make a downtown look inviting even with vacancies. Other types of marketing that she encouraged: brochures, fact sheets, dvds, a web site or web page, and tours.

Greenberg pointed out that the cost of doing nothing in a downtown business district is not nothing. "If a building sits vacant, that costs taxpayers money," she said. That cost is seen in lower property tax values, less commercial activity that results in lower sales tax collections and higher crime rates. Increasingly, people understand those costs, which in turn has led to the growing acceptance of the importance of downtowns to a town’s vitality – the very point that Greenberg made in beginning her presentation.