Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Are You A Downtown Opportunist?

A lot of people ask me what the most important skill a downtown manager should possess to be successful.  And by skill, I don't mean education or experience.  No, I'm talking about a hard-wired skill that is not something that can be learned, but rather something inherent to who someone is deep down in their soul.

I believe in many things (like that Don't Stop Believing is meant to be sung as a duet), but none so strongly as I do this absolute truth:  The most important skill a downtown manager can possess is to be an opportunist. Yes, I know that when you hear the word opportunist, it typically has a negative connotation, so let's call it a downtown opportunist (because when you add downtown to anything, it organically becomes better).  I define being a downtown opportunist as having the ability to recognize and create opportunity at every turn.  And it's not an either/or proposition.  They are not mutually exclusive concepts in this context and one cannot be successfully employed without the other. 

Recognizing Opportunity

It's the ability to walk down the street in your downtown, the same street that you have walked down every day for years and still see something new.  It may have always been there, but today, for some reason, you saw it in a different light.  You saw an opportunity.  Think about it, every really exceptional idea that has happened in your town is because someone decided to look at something differently, and to create something new.  And it's not just about the built environment.  What are you hearing from your community - why do they come downtown?  Look at what your businesses are doing?  What are their success stories?

A business in my town, South Street Skateshop, started an event a few years ago called Deck Art.  The event encouraged the community to create artwork on skateboard decks. The decks were then displayed in businesses downtown for about 10 days.  We saw this as a wonderful event with a ton of potential so we approached the business owner to see if she would be interested in partnering with us.  We weren't interested in taking over the event, but through our substantial marketing muscle, we thought that we could deliver increased awareness which would in turn translate into increased sales and foot traffic downtown.  The result was an incredible downtown event that saw over 275 artists participating (a 40% increase over the previous year), with decks displayed in over 50 downtown businesses.  The lesson learned?  Opportunities exist everywhere, you just have to always be looking.

Creating Opportunity

Yes, it's hard.  It's easy to seize opportunity that is right in front of you. Constantly creating something new takes stamina.  But honestly, nothing is more satisfying.  True downtown opportunists will tell you these moments are what they crave, what they live for (professionally speaking). It's not something that can be taught, although many people have tried.  The ability to take an idea, build it completely in your brain and turn it into something tangible and coherent that can become a living idea, well, that my friends is an art form.  But with a downtown as your canvas, the possibilities are endless.  Why?  Because while downtowns will always be at the core, the center of the community, they do change and evolve over time.  Businesses move in and out, new developments come to town, demand for events and activities increases, etc.  And while many people dread the changes, true downtown opportunists will see them for exactly what they are - chances to create, grow and prosper.

Never think that you know everything, that every new idea has already been thought - you don't and they haven't.  Being a downtown opportunist is a hard, tedious, often obsessive trait.  But the rewards far outweigh the stress and angst that you will endure on the road to the next big idea. 

The Downtown Geek

Monday, June 3, 2013

Downtown Success: A Journey, Not A Destination.

Having just come off a win of the 2013 Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA), you can imagine the enthusiasm and buzz here in Downtown Rochester.  But as the initial excitement starts to settle down, there are a lot of serious conversations happening around the same question - where do we go from here?  On this topic, people are clearly in two camps.  There are those (including myself) who believe we are entering a new phase development for our downtown and the organization.  There are many mountains to climb and we need to get our plan in place.  There is another group that believes that we are at the pinnacle of our success and it's been a great run, but maybe we are done.

Yes, as you might imagine, I almost croaked when I heard that there was discussion of being "done".  To me, it is the cardinal sin of any downtown organization.  My first instinct was to shout from the rooftops all the reasons why we need to continue.  How could someone in my town actually say that we are done?  But then it hit me, maybe we haven't been doing a good job of communicating.

When you look at the Committee Work Plans, you see projects with defined budgets and start/finish dates.  It's a simple system to keep everyone on track and it accomplishes that goal.  But what it doesn't do it allow people to see the big picture of what our organization is about. We were established in 1983 and back then, anyone could tell you why we were established and what we needed to do.

Our Mission Statement:

To maximize the economic development potential of Downtown Rochester for the benefit of the community by maintaining an ongoing, comprehensive downtown management program with broad-based community involvement, seeking reuse of historic and architecturally significant buildings whenever possible, respecting the natural environment, and by preserving downtown's overall unique historical character.

Fast forward thirty years and downtown has definitely changed, and so has our organization.  And while our mission is the same, the way we are executing it is much different.  It's absolutely to be expected and we should have seen it sooner.  Back in the day, our organization was focused on physical improvements - lightpoles, streetscape, downtown facades, purchasing parking lots, etc.  Now we are focused on development of our properties, business recruitment/retention and attracting visitors to our district through innovative promotions and spectacular special events.

I've learned so many things since our GAMSA win (ooh, I feel another blog post coming on), but what it opened my eyes to is that while I believe that there is no real end goal for a downtown organization we have to continually prove our existence. Downtown success truly is a journey, with many exciting stops and challenging detours along the way.  But if we want to continue down this road, we have to take a hard look at who we are and what we need to do to keep our downtown vibrant and viable.  All I know is, I love a challenge and I can't wait to see where we take things from here!

Monday, April 29, 2013

What I Learned in New Orleans

Now that I've been back from the National Main Streets Conference for about a week and a half, I've started to reflect on the trip.  Did I enjoy the trip?  Hey, I was in New Orleans - of course I enjoyed the trip!  More importantly,  did I learn anything?  Absolutely! Having attended 15+ national conferences so far, I think I have a pretty good idea what I hope to get out of the conference each time and New Orleans certainly did not disappoint.  I typically have two goals - recharge my Main Street batteries and get my brain spinning with new ideas.  The recharging is easy.  If you can't get excited about what we do after spending 4 days with Main Streeters from across the country, you might be in the wrong business.  But getting my brain moving, that takes a bit more effort.  This was also a very different conference for me because of a few other distractions that we'll get to shortly.  So back to the big question, what did I learn?

Main Street Is Forever

It's easy to say, but you really have to believe it.  I had the pleasure of presenting a session at this year's conference, "Secrets of a Main Street Manager".  Different from my sessions in the past, I decided rather than focusing on best practices and giving lots of ideas to R & D, instead I would switch things up and talk about something that I know many of my fellow managers struggle with all the time - how to keep going.  While I'm sure that most of you know what an incredibly "glamorous" job Main Street Managers have, sometimes you have those days, those people, those projects that make you ask yourself a very dangerous question, "Why Am I Doing This?" Indeed, while most people in your community would never guess, self-doubt is something we all engage in on a regular basis.  While I've been told that I have confidence to spare when it comes to my job (actually, I think the word was cocky), I always worry that my greatest fear might come true and that I will become irrelevant.  They say that admitting your fear is part of the solution, so I guess that's why I'm always attending conferences, volunteering for new projects and writing this blog.  I'm not just trying to stay relevant, but continuing to create relevancy for our entire Main Street Movement in my own little way.

Awards Don't Suck

In case you hadn't heard, my town, Rochester, Michigan was the proud recipient of a 2013 Great American Main Street Award.  It was our third attempt at the award and amongst friends, I had become known as the Susan Lucci of the GAMSAs.  As you might imagine, I was eager to shake off that curse and bring it on home.  It was especially sweet because of the location.  Back in 2006, we were in New Orleans for the National Main Streets Conference.  It was my first conference since I had come back to the Rochester DDA after my hiatus and stepping into the Director's Chair.  I remember vividly having dinner at Emeril's with my volunteers and Marketing Coordinator, talking about how the DDA was off-track and brainstorming ways to get us back where we needed to be.  Fast forward to 2013 and there I was, sitting at Emeril's again with my team talking about winning GAMSA.  I've always been one to say that you shouldn't measure success by the number of awards on your wall, but this one is a little different.  For me, it's less about success and more about the journey taken to this point and continuing to challenge ourselves to see where we take things from here.

Michigan Main Street Peeps Rock

For anyone who attended the Closing Session, you got a sneak peek of what awaits you in 2014 in Detroit.  For those who didn't, imagine the lights going out and a hush falling over the crowd as the Opportunity Detroit Spot from the World Series hits the screen.  With Kid Rock's Bawitdaba playing in the background, it is immediately clear that 2014 in Detroit will be like no other conference you've attended. Then Kid Rock's Detroit, Michigan hits the speakers and dozens of Michigan Main Streeters hit the crowd, passing out Faygo pop and Detroit 2014 conference swag.  The crowd got so pumped up that a spontaneous dance party broke out! 

Many cities host the conference to show off their successes.  What's amazing about Detroit is that while we will be showcasing our successes and true soul of our city, we absolutely exemplify the theme of the conference, "Works In Progress".  Detroit has so much to be proud of and there are good people making amazing things happen every day.  To me, that is what Main Street is all about and why we do what we do.  I truly believe that Detroit 2014 is the conference people will talk about for years to come.

See you The D in 2014!

The Downtown Geek

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Board Members - It's All About Relationships

Why are some downtown managers excited to go to work every day, while others face each day with dread?  It could be a million different reasons, but I contend that one of the most challenging parts of the job is relationship building and if you haven't perfected it you are doomed to a pretty unhappy existence.  People are at the heart of everything that we do as managers, but many people avoid that interaction (or more specifically avoid certain people) and that just won't work.  It's an all or nothing proposition.  If you are going to promote the fact that your organization is inclusive, then you have to practice what you preach and as the manager, you need to lead by example.  And when it comes to your Board, you simply do not have a choice.  So where do you start?

I was watching Sesame Street the other day with my 4-year old and the word of the day was "Volunteer".  It was defined as someone who donates their time without expecting anything in return.  Sorry, no, I don't buy that.  I've been working with volunteers for 15+ years now and they all are in it for some reason.  Not necessarily something covert or nefarious, but let's face it, everybody wants something.  As a manager, it's your job to give it to them.  Every year, I receive 2-3 new board members.  Then it's time to play my favorite game show, "Tell Me What You Want".  Of course, they will never actually tell you what it is - you have to guess, pry it out of them, hire a psychic, beg, etc. 

I've found that they usually fall into a three categories:

The Givers

I really, really like these people.  Very easy to work with, no hidden agendas.  They are few and far between, but if you can find one, hold on to them with everything you've got.  They are wonderful mediators for disagreements at the Board because they hold no allegiances and speak their minds.  They have the potential to become your biggest cheerleaders if given the chance.  Engage them immediately and figure out where they will best fit in your efforts.

The Takers

We've got something they want.  It could be funding, power to make things happen (or not happen) or just the prestige of being able to put their service on the resume.  They are pretty easy to identify, they come in like bats out of hell, blowing up virtually everything you've been working on and wanting to start over.  Whatever it is that they want, you need to figure it out - and fast.  Bite the bullet and take them for lunch to see what's on their mind.  The sooner you find out, the sooner you can set them on the path to focusing their energy to something that they are passionate about rather than running rogue and hindering your organization's progress.

The Fixers

Oh, you all know these people.  No matter what you do, no matter what has been done by your organization, it's all wrong.  But have no fear, they joined your Board to "fix things".  (What? You didn't know anything was broken?)  While the Takers can run the gamut of personalities, Fixers need one thing - they need to be needed and to get attention and credit for what they do.  Maybe they weren't hugged enough as a child? They didn't get that Boba Fett with Launching Rocket that they asked Santa for that fateful Christmas?  Whatever the reason, it's now your job to fill that void.

Inevitably, they'll ask for a litany of reports and information that it will take endless hours to put together. Don't get defensive or take it personally, instead reach out to them and ask how they would do things.  Instantly, you're flipping the script and putting the burden on them to step up and make things happen.  You'll find out quickly if they really have the answers or if they are just crying out to be heard.  I believe that being a Fixer is a temporary condition and with a little bit of time and effort, they can transform into Takers, or believe it or not, even Givers.

At the end of the day, downtown organizations are centered around people and you have to perfect your relationship building skills.  Everyone has the capacity to be a positive contributor, but they don't always know it.  Take the time to get to know your Board members and while you may not strike up lifelong friendships, you might just find champions for your organization that you never knew existed.

The Downtown Geek

P.S. Want more?  Seek the Geek on Facebook!

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Tale of Two Sweet Shops

In my Sunday paper (yes, I love an actual newspaper on Sunday morning) I saw an article about the Romeo Creamery, an ice cream store that opened a few years ago in a downtown about 30 minutes from mine.  As I read the article, it became clear that it was not a feel-good independent business story, but rather a business owner crying for help because their business was failing.  The ice cream shop opened two years ago and the owner was a former employee at the downtown antique mall.  The long-time ice cream shop in the same location had closed and she wanted to step in to take it over.  The business started off well, but began to decline soon after opening. 

At some point, they had to relocate and were now operating in a smaller space in the core of the downtown district. They pointed to the economy and an uncooperative landlord as the reasons behind their plight.  For the rest of the day, I couldn't get this article out of my head.  Being a professional business rescuer of sorts, of course my first instinct was to figure out what I could do to help them.  Yet, something about this story set my Spidey senses tingling.

So I put on my thinking cap and hit the Internet to do a little research on the business.  What I discovered made the picture much clearer.  As I dug deeper, I found their Facebook page.  The posts told me (and every other visitor) everything I needed to know about the shop.  First, hours are limited (1-6 pm) and sporadic at best.  I know this because that is the comment made most often on their page by their followers that they are often not open when they come to town.  Oh, and as of July, they still didn't have a sign up and were telling customers to "look for the flag". Second, the majority of their posts focus on the other products that they sell - antiques, sugar scrubs, even chain mail jewelry.  I understand that they are looking for ways to draw customers in, but they only that they are doing is confusing their potential customers. I don't claim to be an expert in the ice cream business, and I understand that wintertime in Michigan is not the best time to be selling cold treats, but I see lots of ice cream stores in our area that are busy year-round.

So I thought I would try an apples-to-apples comparison and look at Sweet Island Yogurt, a new business that just opened in my downtown this past year. It's one of those new self-serve yogurt concepts, but independently owned and operated.  I checked their hours - 11 am - 10 pm, every day.  Their posts focus on their customers, products, and special events.  The only thing they added to continue to attract visitors during the colder weather is hot coffee and cocoa.  Simple and straightforward, they have been well-received and are making it happen every day.

So what's the difference?  As downtown managers, we see it every day.  People that go into business with their hearts instead of their heads.  The owners of the Romeo Creamery wanted to give back to their community, but didn't adequately run the numbers and figure out how to market their concept effectively.  Sweet Island Yogurt did their research, wrote a business plan and talked to downtown business owners about the area and our organization before they made the decision to open their business here.  Same product, vastly different results.

Does this remind you of a business in your town?  If so, now might be the time to make a visit to see if you can help them refine and clarify their concept so they have the best shot at success.  It's not good for anyone to see your downtown as a revolving door of businesses.  And if you see a chance to help your businesses , well, that's opportunity I'll take every day of the week!

The Downtown Geek

P.S. - Want more?  Seek the Geek on Facebook!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Art of Attracting Businesses

The same things happen in every downtown during the first quarter of the year - packing up all the holiday cheer, planning for your next event season and watching some of your businesses close their doors.  In my experience, this is the most "popular" time of year for businesses to make that fateful decision.  In truth, many make that decision the year prior, but go through one last holiday season to either give it one last try or to make as much money as possible before they throw in the towel.  Any business closing is sad, but it also has to be looked at as an opportunity.  Whenever a space becomes available, this is your time to forge a relationship with that property owner (if you don't already have one) and to find a business that fills a gap in your downtown business mix. Even if your occupancy rate is high, you should always be on the look out for new businesses so you can build a strong prospect list.

How Do You Know What Fits?

Take a look around.  As a manager, you should have your finger on the pulse of what your community needs.  Who is your primary customer?  Look for businesses that will give your customers another reason to come downtown.  You always want to be cautious to protect your existing businesses.  The goal should always be to enhance the existing mix.  Be careful of looking for businesses that are "on trend" right now.  As quickly as they are the new hotness, they will be forgotten and out of business.

So Where Do You Find Them?

I'm not a big fan of cold calling.  It's rarely effective, and just plain awkward.  I prefer the personal approach so I like to visit other downtowns and shopping centers. I don't walk around with a stack of brochures, passing them out to any merchant who will take them. I visit businesses, usually ones that I have done research on first.  I walk the floor, assess the merchandise and try to picture how it would go in our downtown.  If I like what I see, I introduce myself to the manager and inquire if they would ever consider opening a second location.  Never, ever ask a business to move from their downtown to yours. I had another Main Street Manager try that in my town once.  Let's just say, it wasn't pretty.

To Packet Or Not To Packet?

I'm sure everyone has an opinion, so here's mine.  It's tempting to want that pretty four-color folder with printable inserts like all the big developers do.  Don't waste your money.  I did once and after an incredibly painful committee process, we finally printed a packet.  It was very attractive, but in the long run the use did not justify the cost.  What we did find useful was creating an organizational brochure that focused on what we as an organization do and how we can help businesses.  It has many uses beyond business recruitment and is easily updated.  Your sales pitch should go beyond demographics, and focus on why your community would embrace and support that business.

So where is the best place to find a new business?  As Dorothy once said, "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard".  You might be surprised how many of your downtown businesses are thinking of expanding or spinning off a separate brand.  As they say, it's easier to keep an existing business than to find a new one, so make sure you keep your businesses in the loop when new opportunities become available.  Business recruitment is an unpredictable combination of timing and pure luck.  But if you're in the right place at the right time, you never know how much it can benefit your downtown!

The Downtown Geek

Friday, January 4, 2013

Why I Love Main Street

I took some much needed time off over the holidays.  I spent my days playing princesses with my daughter, baking sweet treats and watching every sappy holiday movie I could find.  After a while, I couldn't help but notice a pattern in the plot lines.  A tragedy would befall a person/family (around the holidays, of course) and just when all hope seemed lost, the community would rally together for an impossibly wonderful happy ending.  And every time I encountered one of these movies, I felt myself welling up with tears when the people stepped forward to save the day.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm not exactly the emotional type.  I started to wonder, did I take too much time off?  Was I overwhelmed with holiday spirit?  After much soul-searching (and several Santa sugar cookies), it finally hit me.  This is what we do.  Or more specifically, this is why we do it. 

I came to work in my downtown after stints at an advertising agency and a special events firm.  While I enjoyed the work, I always felt like something was missing.  Truth be told, I was bored at my current job and looking for a new challenge when I heard that they were looking for a Promotions & Marketing Coordinator for my hometown of Rochester.  In my first interview, I met the man who would become my mentor and lifelong friend, Bob Donohue, Director of the Rochester DDA.  We hit it off right away and after 15 minutes of chatting, he told me that they were narrowing the field to 6 candidates and that I would definitely be one of them and to expect a call next week.

So I sat by the phone for the next month and had almost given up when the phone finally rang for my second interview.  I thought I was meeting with Bob again, so you can imagine my surprise when I walked into a room of seven people.  The next 45 minutes were some of the most painful and awkward that I can remember.  Quite frankly, I was talking faster than I could process what I was saying and to this day I am really not quite sure what came out of my mouth.  I just remember a lot of laughing - not sure what that meant.

After I was finally able to get out of there I headed back to work and, like any girl, I called my Dad to tell him how awful it went and that there was no way I was getting the job.  As he was using the standard Dad-isms - "It just wasn't meant to be", "There's something better out there", my other line was ringing.  So I let my Dad go and picked up the call - "Yes, is Kristi Trevarrow there, this is Bob Donohue calling".  I blurted out "hold please" and set the phone down on the desk.  My first thought?  Wow, I've never had anyone call to tell me I didn't get the job.  So I gathered my thoughts, tried to slightly change my voice and picked up the phone again.  Bob told me that as soon as I left the room, they knew that I was the one.  I was speechless.  I immediately accepted the job, not even knowing what I was really getting into and without asking what the job paid.

So what does any of this have to do with those holiday movies?  Hold on, I'm getting there.  What I didn't know then, was how much this job would impact who I am as a person.  I love my job not because of all the cool stuff I get to do every day, but because of what it all amounts to - helping people.  I know that saying that we make a difference may seem cliche, but I really believe it.  It is an amazing feeling to know that what we do every day has the power to create jobs, inspire community pride and investment and, my personal favorite, puts smiles on people's faces. 

Community painting of the historic Rochester Elevator.
Yes, clearly I watched one too many Hallmark Channel movies this holiday season, but the feeling that I got watching those movies is the feeling I get every day that I am fortunate enough to have this job.  And I thank my lucky stars  that for some inexplicable reason, they took a chance on a crazy girl like me.  My perspective on life is completely different than it was before I started here almost 15 years ago.  This job has taught me what is really important - people and our community.  Main Street is what ties it all together.  Through Main Street we are able to make incredible things happen, not through the efforts of a few, but with the support and dedication of many.  And that my friends, is why I love Main Street. 

The Downtown Geek

P.S. - Don't get used to this cuddly version of me.  Next blog, I'll be back to form so you better buckle up and get ready to work!