Covid has proved that providing necessary amenities that are vital for your local residents will encourage a larger return on investment and create a more sustainable downtown corridor.
While tourism may not be top of mind for a lot of downtowns right now, the fact is that at some point we will begin to venture out again. So it’s important that we mine the valuable lessons learned during the Covid pandemic to create healthier, more resilient downtowns going forward.
One of the most potent reminders of this collective experience is that downtowns need to work for local residents first. All too often, the solutions prescribed for communities or Main Street organizations are tourism-oriented, forgetting about the individuals and families that make up the community. This tourism-based concept requires adjusting your marketing approach so that people from out of town will find your downtown and community appealing, ultimately becoming more inclined to spend the money needed to stimulate growth and revitalization. While it is certainly true that tourism can be a boost to any community and should be one component of a comprehensive revitalization strategy, tourism should never be the entire (or first) focus of a municipality’s revitalization effort.
Post-Covid or not, successful revitalization efforts must start with a predisposition for thoughtful inclusion of residents’ needs and desires. Experience has demonstrated that communities who focus on residents first are far more successful in their grassroots revitalization efforts, creating an economy that demonstrates civic pride and is more resilient to economic downturns. As residents within a community represent the most significant spending power, a more realistic priority of revitalization should be to have the money already in town, spent in town. This capture of “local dollars” should be a first priority and is a more achievable prospect than trying to capture dollars from people living outside of the community.
While many communities have amenities or services that are attractive to visitors, not every community is considered to be a tourist destination. Depending on the natural and/or built environment, weather, location, and many other factors, there are some communities that will not have sufficient amenities to attract the level of tourism dollars required to make the community sustainable. That being said, even potential tourist destinations would be wise to focus their efforts locally. By providing an adequate split of services these tourism destinations will be able to better offer the necessary services or amenities that will support long-term residents, as well as be an adequate draw for visitor retention.
Ensuring that a revitalization effort is balanced between tourism spending and local spending is vital to the sustainability of any community. Our understanding of economic development has shifted in recent years because all the data show that successful cities are first and foremost great places to live. Communities must invest in quality-of-life factors to retain and attract talent. When a community is a great place to live, residents are going to pay more for a home, get involved in local affairs, advocate for their place, and even invest in their town.
Balancing these community virtues is vital to the longevity of a community. It should be the focus of all local elected officials and citizen groups to strive to make their own communities a great place to live. Through this, all communities will be able to clearly identify their own individual goals, visions, and needs.
While creating this necessary balance may be seen as an easy task, it most definitely is not. So, to help each community start the process of thinking Local First, we are providing these suggestions to kick-start your revitalization. It’s worth noting that some of the items below could and should include Covid-instigated changes local community members may enjoy going forward, such as outdoor dining:
- Conduct a needs-and-wants assessment for your local community – In this assessment, survey the public and determine what goods or services are readily available within the community and what must be traveled to.
- Facilitate a market analysis to identify “gaps” in local services – This market analysis will provide the community with the statistical and market-driven data necessary to back up the community assessment findings, offering a direction for future economic-development initiatives.
- Encourage local non-chain establishments to fill necessary amenities or services to residents – While there is a time and place for chain establishments, in order to truly encourage locals to make catalytic changes within a community there must be homegrown establishments that offer a distinction above chain establishments related to service, cost, quality, or availability.
- Identify what assets are available to your community and how they can be leveraged to support local and tourism growth – To achieve a sustainable balance between tourism-based and local-based economies, the community must truly understand what amenities are available and how they can be leveraged to meet the overall goals or visions of the residents.
To underpin these typical steps in a Locals First movement, we recommend that the community become more aware of the needs and desires of their local residents in order to create an outstanding place to live. The result of this process will be a local community (elected officials, residents, and citizen groups) better able to make decisions and recommendations for the following categories:
- economic-development initiatives
- land-use modifications or changes
- necessary services or amenities the municipality should provide to residents
- quality-of-life improvements to attract the target market.
By putting locals first, or even creating a community balanced between locals and visitors, small- to medium-sized communities across the U.S. will be able to better provide the quality of life necessary to sustain a long-term population that is community focused and shows exceptional civic pride.
About the Author
Ben Levenger is an AICP planner and registered landscape architect. He is the President of Downtown Redevelopment Services, LLC (DRS), a boutique planning firm specializing in assisting communities through downtown planning and adaptive reuse projects. In addition, he is a founding member of DRI-RR, Inc.; a non-profit formed to help trading communities become proactive with private development to meet under-served community needs or amenities. He also is a “member-at-large” in the Cleveland section of APA and serves on the membership committee for the Cleveland section of ULI.