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Planning Revitalization

After establishing an organization, it is necessary to develop a revitalization plan. Downtown planning is greatly simplified if participants adhere to three basic questions as the fundamental premise of the process:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How do we get there?

This section discusses the fundamental aspects of the revitalization planning process, focusing on the following five steps:

1. Analyzing local resources
Successful organizations are pragmatic. The revitalization group needs to objectively evaluate what their downtown has been and what it is presently. Understanding downtown must go beyond anecdotes and perceptions, which can be misleading. Instead, the current resources available, the users of downtown, potential markets and competing communities must be known. Identifying ‘where we are now’ is a necessary step prior to formulating plans as to what the downtown could or should be.

Early meetings of the downtown group should look at the community’s current condition. As noted, most downtown revitalization programs occur in response to a declining Main Street. In order to rebuild downtown, it is helpful to complete an assessment of your downtown community. The fundamental aspects of this assessment will identify:

  • Problems. These are obstacles or constraints experienced by business owners or others in the community that make it difficult for them to succeed.
  • Assets. These are resources that make your community attractive to businesses and individuals who may want to move into, make investments, or visit your town.
  • Needs. These are the requirements that sustain individual households and businesses. For instance, access to particular transportation networks or residential or business space.
  • Windows of opportunity. These are local conditions that make it easier or possible to undertake a particular project. Consider all events, conditions, or changes in the community.

Essentially, this effort will help to identify the best downtown revitalization options for your town. Instead of leaping from problems to fixes, with this analysis you will be able to make better-informed decisions based on opportunities that may exist right in your own backyard.

There are a number of ways in which you can capture the state of your downtown and identify potential resolutions to existing problems. Next are outlined three families of assessment tools your downtown group may want to consider. Recognizing that some of the analytical methods are more costly and time intensive than others, the group will want to select from these, as a whole or in part depending on particular goals of the program. The simplest tools are presented first.

SWOT Analysis
SWOT analysis is an inexpensive exercise commonly used to evaluate local conditions. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Information gleaned from the SWOT analysis can provide the group with a clearer understanding of the environment in which they are working. This information can then be used to develop a plan for downtown.

When conducting a SWOT analysis, it may be helpful to think of strengths and weaknesses as internal elements that local people can control using their own resources (time, money, people). Opportunities and threats are often elements outside the community. Opportunities can be thought of as local advantages relative to other communities. Threats are external trends or projects that can adversely impact an area. Finally, it is important to realize that threats can also be opportunities, and opportunities can also be threats. The downtown plan will want to build on internal strengths and overcome local weaknesses. By doing so, the group will better position itself to take advantage of opportunities and reduce threats.

A Downtown Inventory
The inventory survey establishes an understanding of the present condition of downtown and provides a basis for future objective policy formulation and decision-making. Key components include:

  • Tracing historical development
  • Knowing downtown’s role in the region
  • Understanding local transportation patterns and modes
  • Assessing local infrastructure
  • Mapping current land use and zoning
  • Assessing public facilities and services
  • Analyzing existing buildings
  • Analyzing the streetscape

Several types of inventory surveys are possible, some more involved than others, including:

Walk-Through Survey
Take a long walk through your downtown and look closely at its appearance. Notice the current businesses, their types, the number and location of empty storefronts, the condition of the sidewalks and roadways, the amount of automobile or pedestrian traffic, and so forth. Record what you see. The downtown group can use this inventory to better understand how downtown functions.

Visual Imaging
Another way to evaluate downtown is to look at photographs. Because you can take the photographs and complete the analysis at a later time, this is a helpful method for those who are time-pressed. Take the photographs on a clear day and when the lighting is sufficient to facilitate comparison of permanent conditions and attributes. Categorize the photos by grouping them according to residential, commercial, recreational, and mixed land-use, as well as infrastructure. Dissect and record what you see.

Commercial Space Inventory
Your group may find it useful to gather a concise database of local commercial property. Initially, it can catalog the existing use of space. It will also be useful down the road when attempting to attract new businesses. Such a database should contain information about the type of industry each business belongs to. Other information you may want to include is the location of the property, occupant (business name) and contact information, owner name and contact information, and the amount of commercial space. Much of this information is freely available at real estate and town offices.

Market Analysis
A comprehensive market analysis is an important part of efforts to improve the local business climate. The market analysis identifies consumer needs and determines what type of retail and service establishments a downtown can sustain. The analysis should include a business and customer base analysis. In addition to providing general demographic information, a comprehensive customer base analysis is helpful in determining buying power and customer habits. Based on this information you may identify the need to recruit a grocery store, organize a farmer’s market, support existing businesses in targeted retention and expansion efforts, or some alternative development. Aspects of a market analysis include:

  • Determining the trade area.
  • Completing a physical business inventory.
  • Surveying resident retail needs and current shopping patterns.
  • Identifying competition, programs, projects, and developments that impact retail in your town.

Trade Area Determination
The first step in the market analysis is to determine the relevant geographic areas. The downtown trade area can be defined by physical parameters and demographic data based on observations, consultation with community members, and census tract information. Each community’s trade area can be broken down into several different groups. For instance, Trade Area A should consist of the boundaries of your downtown and households within it since that is the focus of your revitalization effort. Trade Area B could be defined as the remainder of the town, businesses and residents outside of the downtown, and Trade Area C could be comprised of business sectors and residents in contiguous communities, those surrounding your town. It can be helpful to map the trade area for use as a visual reference.

Physical Business Inventory
The physical business inventory complements the commercial space inventory. After mapping the trade area, the group should catalog the existing retail and services available in each trade area. This inventory provides data concerning existing businesses, thus allowing for a preliminary assessment of the goods and services that are lacking as well as those that are over-provided in the community. For instance, the inventory may reveal an enormous unmet demand due to the absence of a supermarket.

Surveying the Public
The group can survey residents and shoppers to determine their retail needs and shopping patterns, as well as their general perceptions of the downtown. Survey information complements the inventory in determining market gaps; identifying existing businesses that do not meet customer needs; and identifying the goods and services residents feel the area lacks.

Survey questions may focus on:

  • Respondent’s preferences for new retail and service businesses
  • Current shopping habits; where, for what, how often
  • Demographic information
  • A listing of the types of shops they would like to see in the town

Your organization can develop a comprehensive survey or a series of one-page surveys. If a lengthy, more detailed survey design is chosen then it is best distributed by mail or some other means that allows respondents adequate time for completion. A simple survey is best conducted in a brief (three to five minutes) face-to-face interview, which allows for clarification. Whatever format is chosen, you should target a wide audience in order to capture all demographic groups. For a mail survey this may require distribution to all three designated trade areas and for face-to-face interviews, surveys should be conducted at various locations and at alternative times.

Perceptions Survey
It is helpful to examine the perceptions of downtown. Knowing how citizens and shopkeepers feel about Main Street provides insight that cannot be obtained through secondary data analysis. Surveying those who use downtown and, as importantly, those who do not use downtown, can provide a deeper understanding of public opinion. Information gleaned from these surveys can help establish priorities, reveal additional concerns and generate support and goodwill for the efforts.

Information from this type of survey might include:

  • Frequency and use of downtown
  • Perceptions of downtown
  • Reasons for not using downtown
  • Desires for downtown

Purchasing Survey
What goods and services do you and other residents purchase, which of these do you purchase outside of town, where and why? Such a listing can help identify the existing support of local businesses and the goods and services that people may wish to purchase in their home community, but must acquire outside of town due to a lack of selection or quality at the local level. It will also provide some indication of how far people are willing to travel to obtain the desired good or service.

Unmet Needs Survey
You can ask individuals to identify the types of businesses that they want or feel that the town needs. Ask people to think about the needs that they have or those of family and friends. What kind of businesses would fulfill currently unmet needs or desires? Examples may include certain types of restaurants or business services. This information, when combined with available local resources, such as unique labor skills or available retail space, can be used to encourage new enterprises in your community.

Identifying Competition, Projects, Programs and Developments
Your downtown is not isolated from the rest of the world. It is important to recognize that economic development programs and plans may be in place elsewhere that will affect your community. For instance, a neighboring town may be in the process of building a factory outlet mall. Or, infrastructure changes may be in the works, such as a new expressway. Therefore, it is important to be aware of and understand the factors that influence your town and to plan accordingly.

Analyzing other places cannot only highlight impact, but also provide assistance in defining your own revitalization plan. You can look to guidance from other small downtowns based on what they have done to encourage local businesses. They can be particularly useful when trying to identify potential niches in your own town. Using the same inventory sheets that you used for your downtown, you can record similar information from other places, facilitating both comparisons and contrasts. Also, you might want to contact downtown organizations or merchant groups in the towns that you visit. Most are willing to share their efforts with you and offer advice.

Presentation and Public Awareness Education
After completing basic downtown analysis, the information should be clearly summarized in both written and graphical form. A summary provides participants with a basis for objectively evaluating the data, and helps define a framework for future decisions. Key outcomes of this evaluation include a series of identified weaknesses that must be overcome as well as strengths and opportunities that can be capitalized upon.

The media should be seen as an important player. Once the data has been analyzed, this information should be shared through public meetings and with the local newspaper in order to make the findings known to the greatest number of people. Such a campaign not only encourages inclusiveness and participation, but also “rewards” program participants with public recognition of their efforts–which is especially important to maintain volunteer morale.

2. Articulating a downtown vision
After analyzing downtown, the revitalization group will want to generate a vision for its future. Creating a vision is like painting a picture of the ideal downtown. The group works on a blank canvas, and can be as creative as it wants. But the vision requires sufficient detail so that others can “see” the same picture. Through collaboration and consensus building, the visioning process brings together diverse interests to determine what they want the downtown to be in 10, 15 or 20 years. Special interests give way to a single downtown vision, which provides a focus for the future actions of the revitalization group.

The vision can be inspired by many sources. Your group may want to visit other communities with successful revitalization programs to help identify some of the possibilities. It may also help to talk with organizers in those communities to learn how they enacted their own vision.

The ultimate aim of the visioning process is to help citizens set a vision for their downtown and create action plans to reach agreed upon objectives. One useful analogy for the visioning process is to ask the community to imagine it is planning for a vacation. The vision is the destination…where the community wants to go. The implementation plan is the ticket…it offers the path for the community to travel from where it is to where it wants to be.

This process should result in a downtown vision statement, which is a carefully formulated statement of intentions that defines a desirable “destination.” The more successful vision statements are general in nature but have specific goals. They also have an eight-to-ten year time frame. Once the vision is established, it serves as the blueprint for coordinating, leveraging and maximizing local resources. Innovative, creative solutions that meet the changing times are developed through the interaction of leaders and citizens working toward common goals.

3. How do we get there?
While a vision statement is an important component of any revitalization program, it is not a guarantee of success. One of the greatest stumbling blocks for downtown revitalization programs is turning vision into reality. In order to successfully revitalize downtown, communities should have a plan, which provides a blueprint as to how the group can achieve its vision. With a vision in hand it is tempting to latch onto any idea or project. Step three is designed to help you brainstorm, explore, and evaluate projects that may assist in your community’s downtown revitalization, and includes:

  • Generating and exploring ideas

In a brainstorming session each participant is asked to generate as many options as possible. A successful session uses the following guidelines:

  • Appoint a facilitator. The facilitator ensures that everyone gets a chance to express their ideas and helps to summarize those ideas before the next person speaks.
  • Reinforce and encourage all ideas. Now is not the time to discuss details, the group should concentrate solely on generating ideas.
  • Remember that there are no wrong ideas. Do not sell any idea short…if you must comment then comment on how an idea may be improved.
  • It is acceptable to add to ideas or even combine them. Since everyone is thinking about different aspects of the same thing, it is natural that extensions or overlaps may arise.
  • Listen to the full explanation of an idea. Allow people a chance to express their idea in full; do not interrupt.
  • Remember that nobody has all the answers. Success depends on everyone sharing ideas, opinions, and observations. Criticism of an idea that is not fully developed at this stage is pointless.
  • Pay attention to silence. Silence may indicate that there is something more to learn about a project idea.
  • Be open to new ideas. Avoid promoting one’s own agenda.

Exploring Ideas
Once project ideas have been identified the group should seek to generate at least three ideas and related strategies that could potentially be turned into reality. In order to do this it is helpful to consider four essential factors related to each project idea:

  • How would the project improve the vitality of the downtown?
  • How does the project fit into the community vision?
  • What resources are needed for the project to be successful?
  • What information is needed before the project could be set in motion?

Evaluating Ideas
Now is the time to evaluate which of the projects makes the most sense. Each proposed project should be evaluated according to: (1) local capacity to see the project through to completion, and (2) the risks and returns associated with a project. After determining the most viable projects, you will want to draw up an action plan for project implementation.

Evaluating Community Capacity
For each idea, you will want to examine the community’s ability to take on the project. There are five components of capacity that communities may want to carefully consider. If there are instances that the community does not seem to have capacity, you may want to think about what help may be available.

1. Human resource capacity
a. Does the project fit your organization’s vision?
b. Are local leaders willing to act?
c. How much time is required of individuals?
d. What is the local attitude toward the project?
e. Will the group have political clout in this area?
f. Is there–or can there be–an adequate organizational structure?
g. Will neighboring communities cooperate?

2. Entrepreneurial capacity
a. Is the local environment conducive to entrepreneurship (risk taking)?
b. Does there exist the local capacity to promote downtown development?
c. Are there adequate resources to promote the activity?

3. Business recruiting capacity
a. Is the community competitive with its peers?
b. Does the community have the capacity to develop homegrown businesses?
c. Are there steps the community can adopt to help existing businesses?

4. Financial capacity
a. Can we fund this project locally?
b. Does someone have grant writing skills (this includes the time to track both private and public funding sources)?

5. Infrastructure capacity
a. Can the community address the needed infrastructure improvements identified in the community inventory?

Costs and Benefits and Risks and Returns
After examining the capacity to initiate particular projects, the next step in feasibility evaluation is to estimate risks and returns that each project offers. First, projects should be evaluated with respect to Returns and Benefits. These benefits can include:

  • Expanding or retaining the local economic base
  • New jobs and income in the community
  • Strengthened community pride
  • The creation of additional capacity
  • Larger local tax base
  • Providing new opportunities to residents

When evaluating Risks and Costs, the group should consider both social and economic aspects. Social costs are large when projects fail: leaders lose status in the community and project support may quickly fade. When evaluating projects, it is important to think how failure will affect both project participants and community members as a whole.

Economic costs are also relevant, and can include loss of investments and the cost of infrastructure. It is possible, however, to minimize potential risks by spreading project ownership more broadly throughout the community (i.e., broadening the number of local participants), or implement several smaller projects instead of one large one (i.e., not putting all of the eggs in one basket).

In general, while considering each project keep in mind that:

  • Projects should work together to accomplish the goals articulated in the vision.
  • Beginning one project may depend on completing another.
  • Long-term community support may require a number of immediate successes first.
  • Project coordination, in terms of timing and difficulty, should be designed to make the best use of time and resources so community benefits are maximized.

Of course, some projects may require more detailed evaluation than others, depending on their duration, complexity, expense, and so forth. For example, facade rehabilitation and flower box projects are less complicated projects, while a total streetscape redesign is a very intense process; promoting and developing a new festival lies somewhere in between.

The preliminary evaluation offered here can be completed based on the data and analysis obtained in prior steps. The goal is to help you choose workable projects that are suitable for your revitalization goals. Final project development involves financing, organization, and administration of detailed project tasks. However, before you start a project it is wise to consider further evaluation. Indicators of a need to do so include projects that:

  • Pose significant negative side effects
  • Benefit on a small portion or segment of the community
  • Eliminate the option of completing another project
  • Receive little community support
  • Sets an important precedent or limits future project choices

Establishing an Action Plan
After identifying projects, the next step is to establish an implementation plan. The plan will want to include what needs to be done, who will do it, and a timeline.

What needs to be done?
Goals must be clarified from the onset. Without quantified goals, it is hard to evaluate progress. Goals and objectives should possess the following qualities:

  • They should be consistent with respect to expectations.
  • They should be comprehensive and include all major dimensions of the problem.
  • They should be precise to assure effective action and response.
  • They should be internally consistent and not redundant.
  • The plan should identify a series of measurable outcomes by which the community can judge progress and make necessary revisions.
  • They should recognize resource constraints relative to any program to be initiated.

Who will do it?
After establishing what to do, the group needs to figure out not only who will do it, but also what resources they will need. This involves:

  • Identifying the people and groups committed to implementing each step of the action plan; this requires clarifying roles and responsibilities, as well as leadership development, and a schedule for the completion of each task.
  • Identifying resources needed, including those within as well as outside the current capacity of the community (i.e. financial support).

What’s the time frame?
When scheduling each individual aspect of the project four overarching factors should first be considered:

  • Project schedule: When should the project begin?
  • Project duration: How long do you estimate it will take to complete the project from start to finish?
  • Critical path: What projects or events must take place in order for this particular project to succeed?
  • Time of payback: When will the community realize the positive effects of the project?

Realistic Expectations are Critical
Downtown experts note that participants (and observers) in downtown programs have a number of expectations. These can include an upturn in business income, decreased vacancy rates, tangible visual improvement and individual (or institutional) recognition and credit. It is important for downtown groups to convey reasonable expectations to participants and the community. The success depends, in large part, on the effort level participants are willing to put forth to achieve their vision. Reasonable expectations include:

Visual improvements are one part of a comprehensive revitalization program.
The general public may, or may not, embrace the program.
It is quite possible that there will be no significant improvement in downtown, and participants recognize this possibility.
Downtown businesses and property owners will likely respond in one of three ways to recommendations. One group will do something right away. A second group will take a “wait and see” approach. The third group will do nothing.

4. Mobilizing Resources
While time and commitment are the most important resources for small town revitalization efforts, it is a fact that downtown programs cannot be sustained without money. Thus, it is necessary for downtown groups to raise money to support their efforts. The amount of money that must be raised will, of course, depend on the scope of the effort. For example, if ambitions are modest, it might be possible to raise the necessary resources locally, either through in-kind donations, or local fund raising efforts. If, however, the community has grander goals, such as total streetscape rehabilitation, then outside funding sources are essential.

While it is outside the scope of this manual to provide step-by-step fund-raising activities, there are a number of actions that can be undertaken to develop the necessary financial backing. These range from simple promotional activities that might generate a few thousand dollars for signage and landscaping, to rather complex grants that will enable the community to repave Main Street. Perhaps your group can start small, and develop larger projects once the community can see the early results.

5. Evaluating progress
The implementation plan is a vital step in downtown revitalization efforts. Yet many communities have developed plans that were soon relegated to a bookshelf and never looked at again. To prevent this from happening in your community, you need to be constantly using your plan as a reference. Make sure that your actions are guided by your vision! A number of questions can be entertained in order to determine the trials and tribulations of your efforts, the successes and failures thus far, and actions left to be taken according to your strategic plan. Here are some suggested considerations:

  • Is a working strategic plan in place?
  • Has broad support been sought?
  • Did you adequately determine what type of help you needed for your project?
  • Did you adequately assess your financial needs?
  • Do you understand and project the motivations, interests, concerns, and commitment of the community?
  • Have your successes been celebrated?

Final Remarks
Communities with successful revitalization programs have one common characteristic. Namely, they followed through on strategies and stayed with the course of action until they reached the objectives. Since a wide disparity exists in types of objectives pursued, the amount of time involved differs among communities. However, perseverance is a key element .