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