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Why More Cities Need Vibrant Downtowns To Build Vibrant Communities

PENSACOLA, FLOR. — Downtowns are hot right now. A great walkable, livable downtown attracts young talent. (These days they want to work, live, and play in the same place.) It boosts the tax base. It gets citizens engaged and activated and generates enthusiasm for further growth. It’s the heart and soul of a growing, thriving community. So if you’ve got revitalization on your mind, Quint Studer said you must start by building a vibrant downtown. And the first order of business is non-negotiable: programming.

Essentially, programming means creating activities that drive people downtown.

“You want to get citizens and visitors alike to hang out downtown so they’ll shop, eat, drink, and maybe stay overnight,” said Studer, author of “Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America” and founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute (SCI). “But first you need to give them something to do there.”

Programming your downtown can take various forms, depending on the location and culture of a community. And the good news is that programming doesn’t have to be expensive. For example, you might consider starting with a small street festival with food trucks, a series of concerts in the park, or perhaps a pub crawl or local restaurant week.

Quint Studer

Studer’s own town, Pensacola — which has experienced explosive growth in recent years—owes much of its success to smart programming.

For example, Pensacola’s Downtown Improvement Board, a local merchants association, started a Saturday farmers market on Palafox Street that attracts huge crowds. They also sponsor all kinds of events downtown. One Friday night a month, the streets are closed downtown for Gallery Night, which features music, art, and cuisine. Downtown is also home to many running clubs and fundraising walks.

“We also have a park that is a great venue for music and other special events,” Studer said. “And there’s the annual Seafood Festival, which attracts more than 10,000 people to our downtown area over three days.”

Of course, programming is just one ingredient of a thriving downtown. The others are retail/entertainment, office space, and residential. But if you don’t begin with events that draw people downtown in the first place, you’ll never get to the stage where they want to shop, work, and live there.

Here are a few tips to help you effectively program your downtown:

Create a regularly occurring public event that showcases downtown business.

This makes people aware of merchants, restaurants, musicians, artists, and other service providers such as massage therapists, fitness centers, photographers, and so forth. The event might be a farmers market or an art walk.

Look for inexpensive ways to drive traffic during the off-season.

Holiday activities are always popular. In Pensacola, the Downtown Improvement Board started a First City Lights Festival for the holidays. Once you get the logistics such as parking worked out, you can use the same formula for other events, such as a New Year’s Eve street party and trick-or-treating at downtown stores and restaurants.

Consider permanent structures to accommodate outdoor open markets.

Not only will this allow events to occur rain or shine, it solidifies their significance in the culture of the community.

Develop public gathering places that make people feel welcome.

Parks, plazas, and public squares are people magnets. Outdoor seating is always good; remember, the idea is to make people comfortable so they will hang around awhile. Include well-lighted areas for night walking.

Invite street musicians to play on weekends. 

Public music adds color and richness to downtown. It lifts people’s spirits and may even put them in a shopping mood. And of course, the musicians appreciate the exposure.

Build a downtown playground or interactive water features.

Downtowns already attract single and young professionals, so these features are a good way to become more family-friendly.

Focus marketing efforts on activities and the feelings they create.

People are more attracted to things to do than places to go.

Consider a downtown bike share program

This hits the trends toward healthier lifestyles and greener living.

As things start to happen, you can think bigger. 

For example, some cities build a sports arena. Pensacola has a multi-use stadium, which is home to the Blue Wahoos, a Double-A baseball team that has drawn more than 300,000 fans per year to the town. Other options for driving traffic downtown might include a YMCA or a movie theater.

BONUS: If you can, recruit a university, or part of a university, to move downtown. Universities create constant revenue streams. They continue to do well, even when the economy is doing poorly. Also, they often spin off intellectual capital in the community. Tampa moved its medical school downtown because it’s where young people want to be.

“Once a community gets intentional about giving people a reason to come downtown, it all starts to blossom,” said Studer. “People find they enjoy being there. They discover stores they didn’t know about and they try out restaurants. Best of all, they come back. Before you know it, you’re on your way to vibrancy.”

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