Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Place Called Okmulgee...

It's rare that I get out of Rochester but when I do, I usually end up in other downtowns.  Sad, but true, I am addicted to downtowns - meeting the people, exploring the buildings, seeing what makes the town tick.  They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, but quite honestly I think I am beyond hope.  Especially when I have enabling friends ready to feed my downtown need.  And on this trip, that friend was downtown consultant and community revitalization rock star Ron Drake.  Lately, he's been doing quite a bit of work in Oklahoma. I've followed his work on social media, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to visit Okmulgee.

They say first impressions are everything and my first impression of Okmulgee could be summed up in one word, opportunity.  The downtown has so many things going for it right off the bat - nice building stock (good bones, as I like to call it), good scale, community gathering space right in the middle of town, and so much more.  But that's just the surface, and only tells part of the story.  To really feel a town, to understand it, you have to go inside so that's what we did. 

Several buildings are in the process of or have already been renovated into beautiful commercial or residential spaces, so of course I had to explore all of that.  My favorite building by far was "The Mac", currently being restored by Rob & Margaret Hess, an amazing couple with more energy and creativity than you can shake a stick at.  It was beyond interesting to hear the stories of what the building used to be and how they made the decision to bring out the natural beauty in the existing structure rather than white box it and start over.  They understood that the building itself is a character in Okmulgee's story and they are committed to making sure that story is told in every door, window and wall. 

We were also fortunate to get a tour of the Orpheum Theatre (yes, they have an operating movie theatre in their downtown - amazing) with owner John McConnel.  In the first five minutes of meeting John, you could tell that the Orpheum is a labor of love for him.  He gave us a tour from front of the house to all the way backstage, relating stories of the restoration of different parts of the theatre over the years.  He is a true success story, bringing first run movies to a small town theatre for his community to enjoy...and it's clear that he loves every minute of it.

Many have asked what was the favorite part of my visit and there really is only one answer.  Remember when I said that to feel a town, you have to go inside? I didn't just mean inside the buildings, but inside the heart - and that means meeting the people.  Towns like Okmulgee don't just happen, they happen because people make a conscious decision that their town is a special place and that it can be better.  And that decision isn't something that's talked about on a front porch on Sunday afternoon, but rather a decision put into action as evidenced by the amount of buildings being restored, volunteers joining the effort and people stepping up to be a part of the movement of Okmulgee Rising.  Are they where they want to be yet?  I don't think so, but they are well on their way.  Community revitalization is a marathon, not a sprint and I can tell you that the people making it happen in Okmulgee are in it to win it and won't stop until they have restored the not only the downtown, but the whole community of Okmulgee.  And I can't wait to visit again!

See you downtown!

The Downtown Geek

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Value of Vision, Part 4 - The Results

And here we are.  The Downtown Visioning Session was by all accounts a smash success, but now it was time for the hard work to begin.  After all the kudos were shared and high fives all around, we were left with a ridiculous number of poster size sticky notes of ideas and 66 pages of raw, handwritten data from the evening. With a deadline to present our initial findings to City Council on the horizon, we decided to tackle the giant sticky notes first.  These were the notes that each table completed with their Top 3 answers to each of our Visioning Session Questions and we felt that these would give us a general temperature of what the attendees were thinking.

Question #1 -
What Redevelopment Opportunities Do You See Downtown?
  •  Movie Theater/Live Theatre/Entertainment
  • Connections of Trails/Waterways to Downtown
  • Town Square/Gathering Places

Question #2 - What Would Bring You Downtown?
  • Entertainment/Theatre/Music/Cultural Activities
  • Enhanced Retail Mix
  • Expanded Store Hours

Question #3 - What Is The Asset That Makes A Downtown Vibrant?
  • Sense of Community/Identity
  • Diversity - Cultural, Economic & Inter-Generational
  • Gathering Spaces/Town Square

Clearly, there are a lot of common themes throughout the questions.  Additionally, we have dug into the 66 pages, breaking the data into categories by question and the results confirmed much of what is listed above.  Without oversimplifying things, people like our downtown and they enjoy coming here, but they need more reasons to come here.  That's what we needed to hear, and now we can get to work.

So what's next?  Currently, the Steering Committee (our amazing Community Development Committee) is putting together a master document, a Gantt Chart of sorts, of all of our findings from the Top 3 Answers, the 66 pages of notes and an analysis of the fantastic video of the event, captured by our local cable network.  While I find the video fascinating, not everyone might have two hours to watch this cinematic masterpiece, so we also created a 6 minute synopsis video that captures the flavor and essence of the evening.

Downtown Visioning Session - Full Video
Downtown Visioning Session - Synopsis Video

Most importantly, in hosting this Visioning Session, we have an obligation to the attendees and our community at large to take this data and make something happen.  We didn't do this because it was fun or a great way to spend a Wednesday night.  We did it because we believed (and still do) that it was vital for our community.  I'll be the first one to say that we have a pretty great community.  I'm also the first one to say that we can always be better.  And looking towards the future, seeking to maintain the vibrancy that we currently enjoy is the best way to put Rochester on that path.

Stay tuned...

The Downtown Geek

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

PokemonGo...What Can Downtowns Learn?

I can honestly say that in the long and winding list of unexpected things that I have dealt with in my job, never in my wildest dreams did Pokemon ever enter into the equation. But I always say never say never when it comes to downtowns, so here we are.  We heard about it at our office and decided to download the app and go exploring.  I have to admit, it was kind of fun, very engaging and borderline addicting.  And while it was super cool to discover PokeStops and capture Pokemon, what struck me was how it was able to draw a mostly teen crowd to downtown.  Yes, many have described them as "zombies staring mindlessly at their phones", but I think that's missing the point.  How many times have we all agonized over ways to draw teens downtown with marginal success?  Along comes PokemonGo and here they all are which, in my mind, begs two questions:  Why are they here and, more importantly, how do we engage them?

While I am a self-proclaimed geek, I am not a tech geek, so the science of how it all works is still a mystery to me, but that's for people much smarter than me to figure out.  But what I can tell you is that the most interesting part of the app for downtowners are the selections of the PokeStops, many of which are historic markers.  Interesting, huh?  And certainly much more engaging than the old QR codes that have gone the way of 8-track tapes and pet rocks.   So what did we do? 

First, let's go back to why they are here - it's a game and they want to play it, earn points, choose teams, battle and most importantly, capture Pokemon.  So how do we help them achieve that goal?  We did what any self-respecting downtown people would do, we created a PokemonGo event.  It was pretty simple, down and dirty really.  We already had our Sidewalk Sales going on, so we piggybacked on that. We figured out that you could purchase coins to set "lures" on the PokeStops downtown that would draw additional Pokemon to the sites for people to capture.  We advertised the event exclusively through our social media channels and let people know that we would be setting lures.  So we could really track how many people the event attracted, we added a call-to-action component. People had to stop by our Information Booth and show us that they had captured at least 20 Pokemon.  As a reward, they could pick a piece of Pokemon swag out of our treasure chest and enter to win a Pokemon Prize Pack.

How did we do?  At the end of the night, we had over 300 people stop by the booth to show us their Pokemon spoils and enter the drawing, including a precocious little teenybopper who assured me that I was going to be "so jelly" when he showed me how many Pokemon he captured.  Priceless.  What was most interesting was that the crowd was not just teens, but people of all ages that were really enjoying getting out and exploring around our downtown.  And they truly appreciated us recognizing and rewarding their efforts.  PR mission accomplished. 

Between the Pokemon swag, prize pack and lures, we probably spent about $200, but the public relations value far outweighed that.  We engaged the teens (and everyone else), made them feel welcome and invited them to come back.  Pretty good return on investment if you ask me!

Oh, and my personal favorite part of the app? The ability to take photos of the Pokemon you encounter within their surroundings. I might have 2 or 3 (or 45) photos of assorted Pokemon characters all over Downtown Rochester. 

See you downtown!

The Downtown Geek

Friday, May 27, 2016

All About The Experience

Fresh off the Main Street Now Conference in Milwaukee, I was thinking about what my takeaways would be for this year.  I wouldn't say that I left with any killer ideas that are going to change my downtown forever.  But I did gather quite a few "sparks" that will definitely make an impact on how we do things, and what we do downtown.  But if I had to pick one defining or a-ha moment, it would have to be Kopp's Frozen Custard.  Yes, the food was awesome, but it's not about that.

So I arrived in Milwaukee with my intrepid crew on Sunday afternoon.  Typically, we would find a nice white tablecloth local restaurant to treat ourselves before the conference hustle and bustle began.  In doing my research for our visit, one name kept coming up search after search - Kopp's.  Founded by Elsa Kopp in 1950, this local joint specializes in burgers and frozen custard.  The reviews were off-the-charts positive so I decided that we would zig instead of zag and check out what all the fuss was about. 

We arrived about 7 pm on Sunday night, and we were floored.  The place was packed.  And I don't mean a little bit busy, I mean "OMG, where in the world are we going to park" kind of packed.  After the initial shock of the parking lot, we ventured into the building, and the shock and awe continued.  The building was wall-to-wall people, with several lines snaking around the building, each line with a specific purpose.  And you did not want to get in the wrong line, because they would make you go to the back of the correct line (this happened to one of my people and it was not pretty).  So we got through the line, ordered our countless numbers of burgers and deep fried delights and then we were on our way to play the ever popular game, the waiting game. 

We were number 699.  So as you might imagine, we were slightly concerned, borderline vexed, when they started calling numbers like 725 and 6.  It became clear that the registers all produced their own numbers, so that's super fun.  Now that we are all ordered and waiting, it begins to occur to all of us that there are absolutely no tables or chairs in this restaurant.  I don't mean that they were all full and unavailable, there were literally NO places to sit inside the restaurant.  When our number was finally called, we made our way outside and followed everyone else's lead and took up residence on the concrete steps in the parking lot. 

Here it was, the moment of truth, first bite of the legendary Kopp's Burger...and it did not disappoint.  Even though the first segment of our visit was confusing and chaotic, that turned into all of us hanging out, sharing food and stories and each other's company.  We even made the bold decision to go back in and do it all over again in the custard lines.  We ended up spending well over two hours at Kopp's just enjoying the experience.  On the surface, it would seem that a business model like this could ever possibly work. But after experiencing it, I couldn't imagine it any other way. Okay, now here's the part where I connect it back to downtowns.

When I arrived downtown this morning famished, I walked over to the bakery to get my favorite sweet.  On my way, I picked up some trash off the street and noticed a flag of sidewalk that needed to be replaced, and I also enjoyed the sweet scent of lilac in the air, and the smile on my face when I was greeted by name when I opened the bakery door.  I think all too often, we get caught up in making sure that our downtown is pristine and perfect, and miss that sometimes it is the imperfections and quirks that make us who we are, and create those memorable experiences that our visitors carry with them.  I will never forget my experience at Kopp's.  And more importantly, I will try to apply that lens when I looking at our downtown to make sure that we are always balancing the capital improvements and economic development with ice cream socials and pet pageants. 

The Downtown Geek

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Value of Vision, Part 3

The Value of Vision, Part 3 - The Visioning Session
(Part 3 of a 5 part series on Downtown Visioning.  Check out Part 1 & Part 2)

When last we left our Steering Committee, they were highly motivated and working hard to get the right people in the room.  Through personal invitations, social media pleas and some serious working of the local media, we were able to attract 140 attendees to participate in our Visioning Session.  Members of City Council, Planning Commission, the Downtown Development Authority, Principal Shopping District, property owners, business owners, community leaders, residents of Rochester and the surrounding communities and students from Rochester College. Each table had ten people, including a moderator to keep the conversation on track and a student "scribe" to take notes on each discussion topic.  Now it was time for our moderator and downtown revitalization rock star, Ron Drake, to make it happen.

From the moment he took the mic, you could feel the positive energy radiating throughout the room. People were genuinely excited to be a part of this Visioning Session, and they were ready to get down to business.  Of course, we wanted to set some ground rules to ensure and maintain the positive atmosphere throughout the event.  Ron told the group to think big, and believe every idea was a great one. He asked them not to try and solve problems, but to come up with ideas and vision. To keep the group productive and on track, we had three questions for the tables to work on, with 30 minutes spent on each.

Question 1:  What redevelopment opportunities do you see downtown?  

The minute we revealed the first question, people went to work.  I think they were so excited to be there, that they started throwing out every idea they have ever had for Downtown Rochester.  And, human nature being what it is, there was quite a bit of "That won't work" or "We already tried that" and a fair share of people trying to solve problems.  The table moderators worked hard to get people on track and Ron encouraged people to just record the ideas and move on, stop trying to figure out how to do it, just do it!

Question 2:  What would you like to see downtown?

The second round is when things really started to take shape. The crowd was getting a better feel for what we were trying to accomplish, and they could see some congruence with ideas from the first round. They started acting more like a community, one in which they all share. Ideas ranged from new business and event ideas to creating more gathering places and simply brainstorming more reasons to come downtown. Ron circulated around to all the tables during discussions, participating in discussions and helping to develop thoughts and ideas that he heard. And he decided on the fly that there was still more we could get out of this group, but we needed to change the third question!

Question 3:  What is the asset that makes a downtown great and vibrant?
During the first two questions, people created laundry lists of things they would like to see happen downtown, so we needed to flip the script and ask a pointed question - What is the asset that makes a downtown great and vibrant?  Ron asked people to think of other downtowns they had visited and enjoyed.  And he also acknowledged that Rochester might already have some of the assets, and there were many others that it didn't.  It was a fascinating discussion and really made people think of the big picture.  

By the end of the night, people were more excited about Downtown Rochester than they had been in some time, and many were impressed at how well so many of the community leaders interacted with each other. While each table had people from all different backgrounds and ages, there was a camaraderie that developed that night.  Some said if only one or two projects come from the Visioning Session, the unity that the event created will do far more than the projects will for the future of Rochester. And most importantly, they wanted to be a part of writing this new chapter for downtown.

Tune in next time for The Value of Vision, Part 4 - The Results

The Downtown Geek

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Value of Vision, Part 2

The Value of Vision, Part 2 - Assembling the Dream Team
(Part 2 of a 5 part series on Downtown Visioning.  Missed Part 1? Click here.)

When last we left our downtown crew, they had just embarked on a journey to create and execute a Downtown Visioning Session.  I say a journey because we really needed to look at this project as a marathon, not a sprint.  Sure, the Visioning Session could be put together quickly, but this isn't something that we do every day - it's significant, special, and deserved to be treated as such.   And we all acknowledged that the real work would begin after the Visioning Session.  Taking the information - recording, summarizing and delivering a report to all interested parties in the short term, then breaking it down and seeing where we would take it from there in the long term.  But that's getting ahead of ourselves. 

We knew that a Steering Committee needed to be established to execute this project. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I went to my favorite committee, Community Development.  A recent committee creation of mine, they are what you might describe as a think tank, specializing in "special projects".  They don't have an official budget, but they work hard and make a lot of things happen.  The committee includes members from our various Main Street Committees, DDA Board, PSD Board, a property owner, city official, college professor and business owners.  In short, they are my rock star volunteers and to have them all working together in one committee is pretty amazing.  And I knew that they would take this Visioning Session and turn it into something worthwhile.

Of course, you can't have a Visioning Session without attendees, so that's where the conversation began.  We decided on a goal of 150 participants and needed to figure out how best to get there. We could just do a random cattle call through social media, press releases and in-store promotions and that would have worked fine.  But we really wanted the key stakeholders in the room, and we began to make a list of those people. Our wish list included elected officials, city officials, boards & commission members, Main Street committee members, property owners, business owners, community leaders, local organizations and residents.

The committee also made the "controversial" decision to not only invite certain key people from the community, but to allow residents to apply online to attend the session.  Why would we put ourselves through this?  First, we knew that if there were certain people we felt strongly should be there, then we should extend a personal invitation to each of them.  But we wanted to also have voices from the greater Rochester community, as Downtown Rochester serves as the downtown for several surrounding communities as well. And speaking of voices from our community, we wanted to engage students as well, inviting students from Rochester College to participate as table scribes for the event.

So we broke it down like this:

  • 35 spots for elected/city/boards/commissions/committees
  • 50 downtown/community stakeholders (property owners, business owners, employees, community leaders & organizations) 
  • 50 residents from the greater community
  • 15 student scribes from Rochester College

For the first segment, I grabbed the email list from the City and got to work.  For the second segment, each committee member was asked to submit (3) names, and I was tasked with identifying (20) downtown stakeholders.  For the last segment, the residents, we created an online application form through Survey Monkey, where residents were invited to provide their name, city, email and to answer one question, "Why Downtown Rochester?".

So great, now we had a plan and a targeted attendee list, but we were missing one thing. We needed the thing that was going to pull it all together - a facilitator.  For anyone who has ever worked with me, they would tell you that I pretty much always have a plan when it comes to things like this.  So it came as no surprise that when the topic of selecting a facilitator came up, there was only one person I wanted - Ron Drake.

Author, downtown revitalization expert, Main Street enthusiast and pretty much the most positive person that I had ever met - I knew he was the the one for this project.  The first time I had the pleasure of meeting Ron was at the National Main Streets Conference in Detroit.  What struck me about him, beyond his notable resume, was how impressed he was with what was happening in Detroit.  He didn't see blight, he saw opportunity.  I knew then that I wanted to bring him to Rochester at some point, and nothing could have been more well-suited than our Downtown Visioning Session.  I reached out to Ron and shared what we wanted to do, and he was eager to lend his time and talents to our effort.

Now all the players were in place. Invitations were being delivered, press releases distributed, it was all coming together.  It was time for the rubber to meet the road and to make it happen.

Tune in next week for The Value of Vision - Part 3 - The Visioning Session

The Downtown Geek

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Value of Vision, Part 1

The Value of Vision, Part 1 - Why Are We Doing This?

Why are we doing this?  Yes, that's a question I ask myself almost daily.  As it is always best for any good story to start from the beginning, I should probably set the stage for this discussion.  In January, our organization, in partnership with City Council, decided to host a Downtown Visioning Session to gather input and ideas from the community at large.  Once the word got out, the same question came up over and over again - why?

Downtown Rochester, Michigan (about 40 minutes north of Detroit) with a population of about 12,000 people has been in the downtown revitalization business since 1983.  From facade grant programs and farmers' markets to lightpoles and that little light show of ours, we've done it all and everything in between in our 30+ years.  So it obviously begs the question, why hold a Downtown Visioning Session?  Great question, with many different answers. 

First, and specific to our organization, we've had a lot of challenges over the past several years.  But with new leadership, stable funding, motivated volunteers and a fresh sense of purpose everyone is looking to "right the ship" and start defining the direction for downtown. 

Second, input is always welcome. Heck, in this job, we get it whether we want it or not every time we hold an event or put up a street sign, so why not be proactive by initiating the discussion and engaging the community in the process. Any time you have an opportunity to get people involved in your organization or your efforts is a good day. 

And last, but certainly no less important is something that has been my professional mantra for years - you can always be better.  The moment you think that your downtown is the best it can be and there is nothing left to do, you're right, and it's time to step aside and let someone else take the lead.  And if you truly are at the top of your game, what better time to start to plan for the future?  Proactive trumps reactive any day of the week.

So there we were, we knew wanted to hold a Downtown Visioning Session.  Sounds cool, right? But what did that really mean?  Who was going to do this?  What was our goal?  Again, more questions in need of answers, and we found those answers, along with a few passionate volunteers and a charismatic downtown visionary to take us on the journey.

Stay tuned next week for The Value of Vision, Part 2 - Assembling the Dream Team