The Key to Downtown Revitalization?

Brooke Rouse

A vibrant downtown is on the top of nearly every community’s wish list; how to get there is the question. Livability is a word used in planning that refers to the aspects of a community that improve quality of life. If livability is high, people will want to live, work and play in the community and are invested and committed to its future. Factors include both built and natural elements, “economic prosperity, social stability and equality, educational opportunity and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities” as defined by the Partners for Livable Communities.

     A review of several “top rated downtowns” reveal some common threads, often referencing locations that have experienced the common theme of peripheral development draining downtowns, and a new surge of interest in bringing people and business back to the historic commercial centers. Of greatest importance is that a community has a vision statement. Ideally the vision statement is then translated into a comprehensive plan that includes action items and key stakeholders and partners. That vision will direct the priority, investment and character of some of the other elements noted here as “keys to livability.”

     Land Use and Zoning: Communities are diligently reviewing their zoning and land use laws to ensure they are updated and in line with the current vision for the community. Often the comprehensive plan may identify what the “downtown” is, which may be a certain area or street other than the Main Street. Many municipalities are operating off of old and sometimes irrelevant or counterproductive laws.

     Pedestrian Friendly: Access and safety for cyclists and walkers is a top priority in increasing downtown vitality. Widening streets, widening and connecting sidewalks and paths, installation and strategic placement of light posts and bike racks, along with beautification features such as landscaping and public art all entice more people, and families, to come and spend time in the downtown. Reduced noise and pollution, combined with increased public spaces for outdoor dining and music are defining “hip” downtowns.

     Private – Public Partnerships: Successful communities have mechanisms in place for residents to contribute financially to the success of the community, whether it is for a civic or commercial project. These financial “holdings” may be in the form of a crowd sourcing campaign, partnership with a bank or foundation, or as a part of the municipal government. Public funds are necessary (or encouraged) to leverage almost any grant opportunity through state and private foundations and are critical to move projects forward.

     Arts, Entertainment and the Creative Class: Top downtowns always include a number of things to entertain people…a key to quality of life. Identifying, supporting and leveraging art and culture; museums, venues, and events will ensure residents and visitors are enjoying their community. Additionally, what has been referred to as the creative class (by Livability.com and others) includes engaging and finding a meaningful place for artists, innovators, researchers and technology experts to work and share their work.

     These are some of the key Livability Factors. What do you see in your community? What are you missing? Why do live there and why do you consider leaving? These are all good questions for conversation in your community. In 2017, get engaged, join a committee, run for public office, start a private enterprise! Communities will thrive when populations are steady (growing), healthy and happy!

BROOKE ROUSE is president and CEO of the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Contact her at brooke@slcchamber.org.