How can downtowns in disinvested, midsize cities incentivize retail again? What are some cities that have successfully done this?

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Bringing new life back to a struggling downtown is not an easy thing to do, and there's no one-size formula. The process is going to look different in every city, but here are a few questions your city's elected officials should be asking, along with involved citizens who want to see this kind of progress, groups like a Chamber of Commerce or Downtown Business Association, etc.:

  • Who currently uses your downtown? What are the major employers? Is there existing retail or nightlife that draws people—is there a reason to be there after 6 p.m. on a weekday, or is it a ghost town? Take stock of the assets you're starting with.
  • Do people live in your downtown? It's going to be much, much easier to interest retail businesses in an area where they have a permanent customer base. One block of typical Main Street retail requires 1,500 to 2,000 housing units within a short walk. Jason Schaefer describes how this type of insight motivated discussion about the need for residential development in downtown Grand Forks, ND. Talk with residential developers about what it would take for them to build downtown, if they're not already interested.
  • Who works in your downtown? And do they venture out of their offices for lunch or happy hour? Don't assume all employers are created equal—as Arian Horbovetz warns from his experience in Utica, New York, big, institutional "campus" employers are going to add a lot less vitality to your streets than are small, local businesses.
  • How connected is your downtown to the rest of your city? In a lot of small and midsize cities, it is difficult to walk downtown from adjoining neighborhoods. There may be physical barriers like large, dangerous stroads, or a forbidding sea of parking lots. There are likely low-hanging fruit projects to improve these connections and re-integrate downtown with the city. Read Chuck Marohn's thoughts on what looking for the low-hanging fruit looks like in his hometown of Brainerd, MN.
  • If there is a block or two that is more lively than the rest, look at what barriers might be keeping that block or two from creating a virtuous cycle for the areas around it. For example, do you have pockets of walkable streets hemmed in by desolate areas full of parking lots? Check out the article "We Forbid What We Value Most" by Benjamin Ledford, on how parking minimums can stifle downtown revitalization.
  • Let businesses start small. As small as possible. This could mean low-cost pop-up shops, like this successful experiment in Muskegon, Michigan that was one of the reasons Muskegon won our 2018 Strongest Town Contest. It could mean food trucks. It could mean a temporary pop-up farmer's market or a craft fair. Find the aspiring entrepreneurs in your city and ask them what they need, and what the barriers they face are.
  • Consider focusing on attracting and nurturing the kinds of businesses that create an identity and attachment to an area: what Arian Horbovetz describes as "high experience, low commitment."
  • Don't underestimate the power of public art and public events. In Fort Smith, Arkansas, a placemaking nonprofit called 64.6 has used these strategies to tremendous effect to get residents to come downtown and take pride in downtown, and new retail and housing have begun to follow. An important part of the 64.6 model is that the organization serves as a convener, sparking dialogue and collaboration among those whom have a stake in downtown's success. 

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