As municipalities across the country begin to recover from COVID-19, Main Streets are witnessing unprecedented impacts on their small-business retail or commercial fabric. While it is true that small businesses built Main Streets and most will continue to provide vital services to residents, it is undeniable that not all are going to weather this economic crisis. Just as in the global recession of 2008, businesses of many styles, sizes, and services will be lost. This may not be the answer that Main Street groups want to hear, but it is the unfortunate reality. Instead of dwelling on the negatives, it is critical (now more than ever) that communities understand that the oncoming business turnover or loss is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to implement large-scale changes.
Capitalizing on opportunity
While implementing large-scale change may not be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, it is important to understand what this opportunity of higher-than-average business turnover can provide. Outlined below are several key elements to implement during economic revitalization post-COVID-19:
- Recategorize and prescribe the distribution of services or amenities within the downtown.
- Relocate or remove nuisance and undesired amenities/services.
- Relocate or remove property or business owners who are not vested in maintaining their properties.
- Identify services or amenities that will serve the local residents first, and visitors second.
- Attract unique or place-creating amenities that would not otherwise have a chance to move into your downtown.
In the current economic climate, it is important that every Main Street group focus on the above steps for improved economic vitality. In this way, you will be able to create a more resilient, locally based, and vibrant downtown that can weather economic interruptions. To help you take the above outlined elements from idea to action, we are providing some strategies that can be implemented at little to no cost. Broad in nature, these strategies can be amended or altered to meet the needs of a specific community, but they will begin the process of diversification in a leaner time.
- Plan where and when to create inviting corridors – Dictating the distribution of services, amenities, or restaurants will help program your downtown. Through programming, a community can tell a story or give people a path to follow, ultimately encouraging use of the entire corridor instead of just a few “hot spots”.
- Tighten your downtown guidance documents – Now is the time to ensure congruency between your future land-use maps, zoning/development code and design guidelines. It is through tightening these elements that the municipality or review agency will be able to dictate the who, what, where, and when of infill over the next 3–5 years.
- Find out why people spend elsewhere – Identifying the services people leave town for will expose the service gaps within your local economy. Not meeting services locally results in the leakage of tax dollars to a secondary location.
- Capture local dollars – By providing stores or services that meet a local need, your community can capture a share of local expenditures that will be long term and remain sustainable. This mixture of services is critical to your downtown’s ability to weather economic turmoil.
- Identify local needs – Local and tourism expenditures are not mutually exclusive, but a disproportionate amount of effort tends to be spent on capturing tourism dollars. In a struggling economy, local dollars will maintain local businesses even when tourism suffers interruptions. Communities that guess their local needs are often misguided. Instead, research, ask the public, and ask them again. By listening to locals, you empower them, which benefits the whole community.
- Provide for the short, while planning for the long – Don’t take a backseat, allowing the economic crisis to dictate your downtown; successful organizations know this will only breed apathy. Through a set of low-to-no cost strategic recommendations that can be immediately built upon, you can still build civic pride through continued revitalization efforts while staying within budget. Efforts should be made to plan for the 18-month, 3-year, and 5-year horizons, ensuing progress is always visible.
- Shape up or ship out – This economic crisis has exposed property owners who are not maintaining their buildings. While efforts should be made to help them, the current conditions should also be capitalized upon to highlight the impacts of deferred maintenance. If a building is allowed to slip into disrepair or decay, the challenges of limited income will only worsen the impact. Educate property owners on how regular maintenance and renovation will limit the large-ticket costs of building ownership.
- Capitalize – Many downtown/corridor buildings, especially multi-story ones, are experiencing increased vacancies. While upper- or lower-floor spaces may not command high rental rates, such as storefront retail leases, a building with diverse users will create a viable investment. Not all spaces in a building need to be retail. By encouraging a mixture of uses, the owner can mitigate an economic downtown. Retail is always susceptible to the ebb and flow of the economy. By mixing building uses that will complement retail space (including professional offices, institutional uses, and other lower-square-foot-rate uses), a building can generate sufficient income to cover mortgages and operating costs and so will be minimally impacted by economic unrest.
- Enhance the symbiotic relationship – Created to serve residents and supported by residents, the downtown has a symbiotic relationship with residents. By capitalizing on the above suggestions, and garnering local support, a strong and lasting symbiotic relationship can be created, one that is built upon mutual understanding and continual support.
While all of these elements may not apply to every community, some of them are applicable to all main streets across the United States. It is through these diversification techniques that a downtown can become more resilient to economic crises while better serving residents. The recommendations outlined above will not immediately mitigate the impact your local economy has suffered due to COVID-19, but they will incrementally improve it and help your downtown/corridor prepare for future economic impacts.
About the author
Ben Levenger is an AICP planner and registered landscape architect. He is the president of Downtown Redevelopment Services, LLC, a boutique planning firm specializing in assisting communities through building adaptive re-use and developer-readiness projects throughout the continental United States. He also is a “member-at-large” in the Cleveland section.