New Realities Can Bring New Opportunities

Nothing is as it used to be.  And our changed circumstances require not only a revised message but a reinvigorated message – because those receiving your communication will be doing so through a vastly altered prism.

Perception – perhaps more than ever – will influence our new reality, and the actions we choose to take.  That is as true for downtowns in our communities as for other aspects of daily life.  As never before, that presents new opportunities:  to build greater awareness of assets that may have previously gone unrecognized or under-appreciated, to use existing downtown features in new ways, and to make connections among people and places that can refresh perception, even as we navigate the uncertain road ahead.

We’ve spent months cooped up at home, yearning to get outside.  And outside is no longer defined as journeys to exotic, far-away places.  We are largely content with walking a few blocks to our town center to connect with people – at a safe, masked distance, of course – and places that we may not have had time for in the pre-COVID world, or that we never utilized to the fullest.

For all of this to happen, communication is a first step.  What we say, and how we say it, matters.  Town officials, businesses, community organizations, Facebook groups, PTO’s – the list goes on – don’t need to communicate identical messages, but can certainly be on the same page.  It is an excellent time to reach potential enthusiasts, to introduce or reintroduce them to their own town center.

Timing is Everything

As Connecticut Main Street Center has emphasized from day one, great downtowns don’t just happen – they’re created. Establishing dynamic, thriving downtowns is hard work in normal times.  Sustaining them in tenuous times is tougher.  Yet, there’s a good chance that right now more people will be rooting for you.  There’s more of a common interest in keeping a thriving downtown thriving, in spreading the word about what makes your downtown special.

At the heart of the messaging is pride.  Pride in community, in residents, in families.  Pride in what our particular downtown has to offer, the innovations that have come about in response to the new COVID world, the inventive endeavors launched by new partners and new collaborations, or well-known businesses and local personalities responding effectively to changed circumstances.

CMSC Member Community Westville Renaissance Alliance (WVRA) quickly transitioned their 2020 Arwalk event to an online platform featuring 11 hours of programming over two days, while managing to maintain their sponsors and surpass their fundraising goals.

Folks who may have been too busy to give all of this a second thought before, may linger on the message now.  Residents who may not have noticed the new business that opened a year ago, or didn’t catch the announcement of a new program or service offered by a local organizations or business – or the town itself – from downtown locations, may be just thrilled to learn of it now.

A marketplace or a festival, in-person or virtual – it’s the spirit that matters as much as the event.  No matter how many people remember what they did, even more will remember how they felt.  That feeling begins with the decision to participate – and that decision, often, depends largely on the introductory communication received.

We now have a new and unexpected window through which we can shine a bright light on what we have, who we can be and how far we can go – without leaving the confines of our own downtown.  Vibrancy starts close to home, even in the midst of a pandemic.  Or because of the pandemic.  The proverbial silver lining, so to speak.

Messages for Main Street

The Main Street Approach relies on eight principles to produce fundamental change in traditional commercial business districts.  They can viewed now with current circumstances in mind, as a backdrop to drive the messaging that spreads across town.

Consider these principles, and think messaging… comprehensive, incremental, local commitment, public/private partnership, existing assets, quality, change, and implementation-oriented.  Here’s how.

Messages can (and should) be clear and concise, creative and engaging.  Less is more.  We’re on computers, smart phones and an array of devices for what seems like 24/7.  And many of us are teaching class at the kitchen table, too.

Folks in your community with a passion for your downtown, for your community, can be harnessed as messengers for all that’s good.  You don’t need to be a voice in the wilderness.  There’s a chorus out there waiting to be tapped, even if they’ve yet to realize it.

Saying you’re wonderful is good – but it’s better, and more effective, when someone else does.  Tap into neighborhood networks (actual and virtual), and share with them up-to-date information about what’s happening in your community that they can, in turn, share with their networks.

Accentuate the Positive

Don’t criticize ignorance, praise discovery.  Favor messaging with a light touch, rather than a heavy hand.  Build on common ground, encourage collaboration, provide the latitude for grassroots initiatives to flourish. You may be surprised how many people will enthusiastically and thankfully respond.

The good news is that if your town has a strong foundation in place, it can withstand all that COVID has wrought.  If the foundation has been somewhat rickety, the current situation can, with maximized effort, shore it up. And the better news is that everything done now can become initial steps towards the next giant leap for your downtown.  Unchartered territory, mapped by immediate need, can prove to be solid ground on which even further progress can be constructed.

A great downtown exceeds the sum of its parts.  No matter how many pieces are in the puzzle, they each have a place.  Discerning what fits where should invoke adventure, engagement and enjoyment, and invitations for public participation should reflect that tone.  Especially in these times of uncertainty and apprehension, the distinction will make a difference.

The renowned philosopher Mister Rogers once observed that “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”  That has always been the Main Street story.  Connecticut’s downtowns, we’re all learning with each day that goes by, have so much more to offer.  There’s no better time to shout the news from the hilltops.  Just keep your distance.


About the Author

Bernard Kavaler is Managing Principal of Express Strategies, a public relations firm in Hartford.  He is a former Connecticut Main Street Center board member, past president of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government and served previously as a Zoning Alternate for the West Hartford Town Council.

About the Feature Photo

When COVID-19 struck, many businesses quickly reached out to help those in need. Nancy’s Dresses (pictured above), a Main Street shop in downtown Danbury, began making masks for first responders. Read more about the many ways Danbury and other CMSC Member Communities stepped up to help their communities during the COVID pandemic.