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!