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Getting Organized

A few individuals that are concerned about the current state and future of downtown spark most small town revitalization programs. When organizing your efforts, keep in mind that a group of community leaders usually has a strong commitment to reaching the economic development goals in successful communities. Downtown revitalization requires local champions who are willing to spend the time and effort to make the program work. This commitment is crucial in the local initiatives and perhaps the most difficult to obtain. However, a clearly stated vision with a reasonable action plan can bring forth this commitment.

Successful revitalization will depend on:

  • Committed leadership
  • Broad based participation
  • A shared vision of the future
  • Realistic goals and plan of action
  • Effective communication
  • Management of implementation
  • Recognition of efforts
  • Use of outside resources

Getting Established
Forming a revitalization group is the first step in many programs. The procedure is straightforward, with early steps focusing on laying the groundwork for a long-term revitalization effort. Basic tasks include:

  • Forming a steering committee
  • Building leadership capacity
  • Some early steps
  • Generating publicity

Since people are the most critical component of downtown revitalization programs, early efforts should focus on corralling willing participants. To initiate the program, two groups should be involved:

  • a steering committee, which drives the effort
  • active community participants, who support and help sustain the effort

In some places, there already exists an appropriate organization to conduct revitalization efforts. This could be a Chamber of Commerce, businesspersons’ association, or economic development corporation. If possible, such groups are a logical choice for directing the revitalization effort.

Guiding Principles
While downtown revitalization efforts may seem complex, a strong organization can greatly enhance the prospects for success. There are six principles of organization that might strengthen your revitalization group:

1. Include all groups involved in the revitalization process
2. The group must include members of the formal and informal local power structure
3. The group must have a high degree of autonomy
4. While continuity is important, it is also important to infuse new blood into the program
5. The group must meet regularly and frequently, preferably once a week
6. The organization must raise some funding

The Steering Committee
A comprehensive approach to downtown revitalization integrates the public and private sectors in a comprehensive, coordinated and mutually supportive manner. Programs that ignore or are unable to bring together representatives from these two sectors usually fail. Because of this mutual dependence, the downtown group should include individuals from both sectors who are capable of making things happen once the program has reached the implementation stage. Once assembled, this group can put together a steering committee, composed of several individuals whose first responsibility is to mobilize the effort. These individuals should represent various interests with respect to downtown, and it is important that they must be willing to commit a significant amount of time in initiating the effort.

The steering committee could include individuals from the following organizations:

  • The local Chamber of Commerce or downtown business association
  • The local historic society
  • Downtown business owners
  • Bank chairpersons
  • Downtown property owners
  • Public officials
  • Citizen groups and individual citizens
  • Churches
  • Non-profit organizations

Once individuals are identified, it is necessary to get them to “buy-in” to the program. Without their support, the prospects for success are greatly diminished. This is especially true in small towns where key residents wear many hats and their participation in and endorsement of the revitalization project will most likely determine its ultimate success.

Generating buy-in can be difficult, but is easier if organizers realize the basic question underlying volunteerism. Put most directly, potential program partners will want to know what’s in it for them. Such a question does not mean that individuals will need to gain monetarily or else not participate; it is just that they need to see how they can realize some reward for the time they invest. This reward is often simply pride from making the community a better place to live and visit. In other instances, though, it is necessary to realize that participants are often business owners in the community. These owners should be convinced that they could benefit not only as citizens, but also as business people.

When discussing possible benefits with potential committee members, it is only fair to alert them to the costs of such a program. Most often, these costs are the responsibilities members are expected to shoulder.

The steering committee has several important responsibilities, including:

  • Legitimizing the effort with key individuals in the community
  • Identifying participants
  • Arranging, advertising and leading meetings
  • Making the public aware of activities
  • Identifying and involving people outside the community
  • Establishing and distributing an agenda
  • Securing initial funding or in-kind contributions for initial meetings
  • Establish and coordinate project committees and follow through with implementation

Responsibilities of group members may include:

  • Commitment to at least one year of service
  • Commitment to attend related meetings
  • Work three to five hours per month outside of meetings
  • Attend all training sessions, where applicable
  • Read related literature
  • Recruit and orient new group members
  • Prepare in advance for meetings
  • Cooperatively draft action plans
  • Take responsibility for projects
  • Present the downtown and downtown projects positively to the public

In short, the steering committee is the leadership core for the organization. This committee will need to meet every one or two months to ensure progress and coordination.

Leadership
Once the steering committee is established, it is time to identify a leader for the revitalization effort. This leader can be a member of the steering committee, but it is not essential. This individual should have strong organizational skills, be a consensus builder, show a commitment to fund-raising and be able to delegate responsibilities. Motivational skills are an important attribute, and the program leader must have genuine excitement and commitment to the project. Finally, the individual should be patient, understanding that downtown programs are time-consuming, and full of stops and starts.

Qualities of an effective leader are:

  • Understands and teaches others
  • Has a genuine desire to lead and make great things happen
  • Has strong organizational skills
  • Is a team player
  • Enjoys learning
  • Enjoys managing people and projects
  • Facilitates group discussion
  • Makes sure meeting agendas stay on track
  • Maintains a positive attitude that inspires and encourages others
  • Respects other people’s viewpoints and skills
  • Can manage diverse personalities and conflicts
  • Communicates goals and progress to group members and the public
  • Displays integrity, self-confidence, persuasiveness, decisiveness, and creativity

Where do you find a leader? Think about the individuals in your community. Who possesses particular skills that can be tapped to help the revitalization effort? Often skills go unnoticed or certain groups, such as the retired population or schoolchildren get overlooked. On a separate sheet of paper, try to identify all individuals within your community that can assist in the revitalization process. Think about both individuals and organizations, and write down the skills and talents that they have that can help your efforts. You should be hard pressed to find an individual that has nothing to offer.

Some Early Steps
Once the steering committee is organized and a leader is in place, your group will be ready to take some early steps. Most of the tasks are relatively easy, and getting them accomplished will start your effort on the right foot.

Name the Organization
Naming the revitalization program may be the committee’s first accomplishment. Names should be simple and action oriented, incorporating the name of the downtown if possible. The program name might also help the community imagine what their downtown will look like as the program reaches its goals.

Engage the Public Early On
It is important to enlist the community early on. The steering committee should hold a public meeting to describe the group’s intentions and solicit support. The meeting should be advertised well in advance in as many local outlets as possible, including newspapers, radio, storefronts, and even windshield flyers for downtown shoppers. The meeting should be held in the evening at an easily accessible location. Participation from younger residents is likely to be higher if childcare is provided.

The first public meeting is one of the most important. During this meeting, both active participants and community members will form their impressions about the worthiness of the endeavor. Because this meeting sets the tone of the revitalization effort, the program committee needs to be well prepared. There are two components of preparedness that need attention. First, the committee must show that it is organized. Second, the committee must be able to articulate a goal. Of course, the committee needs to be flexible with respect to both organization and goals, so as to ensure the program is inclusive.

The agenda for the first meeting should establish the purpose of the effort, focusing on two questions:

1. Why this group? People will want to learn about the effort. At the first meeting the revitalization group should be prepared to talk about how it was established and by whom. It should outline general goals of the effort, which are often as simple as “making downtown a better place.” Citizens should be invited to comment on the effort as well as offer suggestions.

2. What next? After the general goals of the program are introduced, the committee needs to forward a basic plan for the long-term effort. This plan does not need to be specific–there’s plenty of time for that later–rather it should set up a basic structure for addressing the broad issue of revitalization. Three general themes are useful:

  • Where are we now? This aspect of the project lays the groundwork for the program. It helps the community figure out its current condition, strengths and weaknesses, as well as external forces that are affecting downtown.
  • Where do we want to go? While the general theme has already been established, it is helpful to formally articulate the program’s dream. The committee will want to spend time crafting a vision for the future of downtown.
  • How do we get there? Once a vision is established, the revitalization group will need to develop, enact, and monitor a plan for how the vision will be achieved. Issues that will need to be addressed include:
  • What resources will the group need to implement the strategies?
  • How will we pay for it?
  • How long will it take?
  • How will we know it is done?

Recruit Active Community Participants
While key individuals are an important component of the program, it is also important to have community backing. Citizen participation in the program is important for a number of reasons, including potential sources of financial and volunteer support, the infusion of new blood into the program, as well as input on the direction (or even desire) for the program. Use the first meeting to recruit volunteer participants.

Generate Publicity
It is important to publicize the revitalization effort. By making local officials and the public aware of the program, the group can generate additional support, both of people and money. The group will want to use a variety of media and materials in its campaign, so as to ensure its message is both widespread and diverse. Potential outlets include:

Local newspapers. Some groups issue press releases that announce upcoming meetings or recent accomplishments. Other groups write letters to the editor. Still other groups contribute a periodic column updating the community on the program’s agenda and efforts.

Local television. Visuals are important. Make the local TV station aware when the group accomplishes a beautification project. Announce meetings on the public access cable channel.

Fliers. Announce public meetings by putting fliers in downtown business windows and, if allowed, on utility poles or street signs. Ask the local print shop to donate photocopies. (And remember to thank donors publicly).

Brochures. Once again, seek the help of local printers in creating brochures that trumpet the program. Find a community resident to design a logo–perhaps even have a contest. Incorporate your theme vision into brief, action-oriented statements. Offer opportunities for residents to participate in the process.

A Few Things to Do Up-Front
There are several things that the group can do and should consider in order to remain visible while larger scale projects are implemented:

  • Have a logo contest for the organization
  • Complete a few visible projects
  • Install benches or flower boxes downtown
  • Paint crosswalks, fire hydrants, or building murals
  • Organize a community clean-up day
  • Sell t-shirts, hats, or other items symbolizing the effort