Friday, November 18, 2011

The Commercial District Advisor heads to Mexico to speak about Latin American BID Formation

Enjoying a cup of coffee...
A few months ago, my colleague David Feehan and I were asked by the Interamerican Development Bank to present our experience as part of a team that played a role in establishing the first Business Improvement District in Latin America. The conference, entitled PPPAmericas, concluded yesterday.

Our work in El Salvador was funded by the IDB, and as we came to understand over the course of the two day conference, BIDs are an entirely new concept for most in the world of public-private partnerships. While most panels discussed the construction of jails and infrastructure, we stood out like a sore thumb, with an interest in...gulp, shopping districts?! But our session was well attended by over 200 practitioners from all over Latin America, and many seemed quite intrigued by what has been accomplished in El Salvador. Jorge Iraheta represented the Corporation Zona Rosa, our client, and described in great detail how they executed the BID concept (known in Spanish as "Distritos de Mejora Comercial") with some creative thinking outside the box...but more about that in a follow up blog entry.

The conference was held in the central Mexican pueblo of Guanajuato. What an amazing city. I recommend ever urban planner (or urban planner wanna be!) visit this place. It is one of ten Mexican pueblos to sport the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site distinction. I first visited Guanajuato almost 15 years ago. From 1997-98 and then again from 1999-2000, I traveled and lived in over 13 Spanish speaking countries on a Watson fellowship, and then later as a Fulbright scholar, looking at how historic Latin American cities were remaking themselves. At the time, I would sometimes pinch myself as I wandered the streets of an old colonial city exploring hidden nooks and crevices. That was my "job" for almost two years of my life. And to find myself again wandering the same beautiful streets of Guanajuato taking pictures (I do tend to get funny looks when people see me taking pictures of trash cans!) was a real pleasure.
Guanajuato is a little piece of heaven that is unlike any other place on earth. There are barely any cars on the few passageways (I hesitate to call them roads) wide enough to accommodate them. That's because the town has an intricate system of underground tunnels that accommodates most automobile traffic. This leaves the town a true pedestrian domain. The streets are also packed with students from the university - which is in the heart of the historic district - lending a vibrancy that always accompanies young people. Street musicians serenade diners at the dozens of outdoor eateries. The Plaza Union, one of the main plazas in town, is filled with neatly trimmed trees that have grown into an imposing and massive green canopy, made even more imposing by the fact that the trees are carved into a neatly shaped box. When you enter the Plaza, you feel as if you are walking into a lush living room with leaves for a ceiling. As you walk the streets, every turn uncovers a surprising vista, a hidden plaza or building to discover. I spent half the day walking around exploring before making my way to the city museum and local market for a few small gifts. I did refresh myself with a stop at a little cafe, where I enjoyed the view of the bright yellow cathedral.
If you get lost, there are helpful directional signs to guide you. Although I did find the standard downtown map unnecessarily confusing. When a self - professed map geek has problems reading your maps, there is a problem. But getting lost was, frankly, half the fun. I also realized what an incredible disconnect there is between the world of BIDs and the world of tourism districts. All of the directional signs seemed sponsored by the state or city run tourism council. In the US, this kind of signage can be sponsored and maintained by BID's, freeing critical public resources for other needs. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of resources were committed to upkeep, particularly as I stumbled upon more than a few signs marred by graffiti. But those sights did not affect the overall experience, and the cleanliness of the streets was more a rule than an exception. See for yourself...

Plaza Union's perfectly trimmed trees
An intersection in the underground street system

Signage in need of maintenance

The outdoor living room...

Surprising elements at every turn

Directional signage

Outdoor cafe along a typical 'street'

Car traffic is tucked behind the buildings
as it emerges from the underground street network

A downtown map marred by graffiti

Monday, November 14, 2011

Award-Winning BID Leadership Training Program Accepting Applications for Second Round

2011 Coro Neighborhood Leadership Participants at
Inaugural Retreat
 I am so pleased to announce that applications for the award-winning 2012 Coro Neighborhood Leadership program are now available on-line.

As the Program Director, I am proud to have had a strong hand in shaping the inaugural curriculum and in leading a truly accomplished cohort of 20 seasoned professionals through the five-month program. What these BID and CDC practitioners discovered was that professional and personal networks can be improved at any stage of professional development, and that key leadership skills (even the best of us need this!) are bred, not born. Becuase this is a field that attracts professionals from a variety of backgrounds - the process of bringing them together to share in dialogue and best practices is valuable not only for what they learned from the program, but perhaps even more so for what they learned from one another. The program also recieved a 2011 Downtown Merit Award by the International Downtown Association (IDA) for excellence in downtown leadership and management.

In announcing year two of the program as part of a comprehensive set of neighborhood retail initiatives, Mayor Bloomberg stated “small businesses are the backbone of our City’s economy and our neighborhood retail corridors are the driving force behind job creation and economic growth". The City's efforts will "provide local neighborhood retail districts with the tools they need to jump-start local economic activity, attract new retailers and reach a whole new range of consumers.” [See Oct. 27, 2011 Press Release]

And for those of you who like video...NY1 did a nice news piece, click here to take a peek:  "Officials Work to Revitalize Lower East Side Businesses"

For all these wonderful accolades, the most significant feedback comes from participants. Blaise Backer, Executive Director of the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership, and no stranger to accolades for his work turning Myrtle Avenue around ("Pratt Institute Takes an Interest in Making a Neighborhood Nicer", NYTimes, 2/11/11) offers this testimonial:

"Neighborhood Leadership was a huge benefit to my professional development and has helped me both on and off the job. As the director of a small non-profit, my busy workday rarely provides me the time to reflect on my leadership skills and work habits. This program provided me with a much needed opportunity to pause from work in order to develop my skills, assess my current challenges and develop strategies to overcome them, and to learn from my peers and Coro's excellent facilitators. I highly recommend the program for those working in the field of neighborhood and commercial revitalization."

The Coro Neighborhood Leadership Program is made possible by generous funding from the NYC Department of Small Business Services. Eligible participants include staff at nonprofit organizations that serve commercial districts in New York City and whose work focuses on commercial revitalization activities. A majority of participants selected will serve low to moderate income neighborhoods with a limited number of slots open for participants who do not fall within this category.

Click here for more information on eligibility and to download an application.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Special “Small Business” Series: The story of Bar Marco, Part 1

Bar Marco will open shortly in this
wonderful old firehouse, constructed
in the 1860's.
On a recent trip to Pittsburgh for a client, I was fortunate to connect with a group of four business partners opening up an exciting new bar/restaurant called Bar Marco in the up and coming Strip District, a gritty area northeast of downtown Pittsburgh historically known as a produce wholesale district.
Bobby Fry, along with his partners Justin Steel, Kevin Cox, and Michael Kreha, all share an infectious energy combined with a strong commitment to their vision. Bobby in particular also has a deep interest in community and economic development. Having left New York and spent a few years on Wall Street, he returned to Pittsburgh for a variety of reasons, and ended up teaming up with old friends from high school to pursue the dream – a European-style wine and tapas bar.

Why is Bobby’s story important? Because these are exactly the kinds of businesses and business owners that make commercial districts tick. They not only give back to the community, but their businesses become the kind of places that drive repeat visitation. They also set a tone for other business owners and elevate the overall perception of retail and restaurant offerings overall - which ultimately helps all district businesses.

In less than a year, Bobby has found a seat at the table, becoming a board member at Neighbors in the Strip, a small non-profit dedicated to promoting economic development in the district. He and his partners are also committed to sourcing their products from Pittsburgh area vendors. The economic impact of these decisions is a small drop in the bucket, but if replicated by other business owners in a district, is precisely what keeps the local economic engine going…and growing.

So how do we make sure our districts are positioned to attract the Bar Marco’s of the world? This series will help us unpack that question, as we follow the story of Bar Marco and use it to explore the various ways commercial district entities can support and facilitate the growth of similar neighborhood businesses.

I started by asking Bobby what made him choose the Strip over other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. He replied that initially the area wasn’t on his radar. They were looking at another neighborhood, but one night one of the his partners was chatting with someone who mentioned that the Firehouse, a well known restaurant in an old 1860’s firehouse, was closing and that space was soon going to be on the market.

How important is data, really?
The Strip District wasn’t on their radar – but once they knew the space available they took a closer look at the area as a location. They needed to move quickly – and what they knew about The Strip was enough to help them decide to forge ahead. According to Bobby, two key metrics played a role.
  • Transit access was excellent. Penn Avenue is a busy street that leads to downtown. Not only that, but they are five blocks from downtown and have a small dedicated parking lot to boot. “It doesn’t get better than that” says Bobby.
  • New high-income development completed or in the pipeline. A quick drive through  The Strip District confirms what locals already know, the jump in residential housing means a growing, and captive, market...just the kind of folks who might patronize a European-style wine bar.
So with some basic information about the market, some familiarity with the District, and a strong gut instinct, they were off…signing leases, getting financing (more on that later!), starting construction, and basically turning their concept into a concrete reality.

What are the take-aways here? While there is not much you can do in the short-run about your district’s transportation access, Bobby’s feedback makes a strong case for keeping track of and mapping new development and construction in the pipeline. If a retailer wanted to locate in your district, would they be able to find this information on your website?

What can a district management entity do to help?

Bar Marco Owner and Architect
Michael Kreha hard at work

While small business owners can go it alone, it always helps to have help. And that is where the local commercial district management entity comes into play. Becky Rodgers, Executive Director of Neighbors in the Strip has been a tremendous asset, says Bobby. “She is a champion for local business. When we got here, we were introduced to her by our landlord, and she immediately worked on making e-introductions for us to people who own lofts and residential buildings in the neighborhood”. Working with Becky, Bar Marco recently held a charity event that resulted in a packed house – even before they had officially opened. This kind of word-of-mouth marketing is a tremendous asset, it helps build buzz and is setting up Bar Marco for success down the road.

Bar Marco is set to open in a few weeks, in the meantime, the construction dust continues to fly as Bobby and his partners work furiously towards their official opening. The determined look on partner Michael Kreha’s face says it all…

Bar Marco is on Facebook. Be sure to "Friend" them to keep up with their story....

Round-Up: Long Island City, Queens, NY

Long Island City, a former waterfront industrial area on the East River, facing Manhattan, has seen an incredible amount of development recently. With those new residents have come a more diverse retail mix.

Some great examples of signage, seasonal decorations, and creative storefront facades. These are the hallmarks of a up and coming business district....

I also LOVE this facade treatment for a local bakery....look closely. Those are rolling pins!

Now here's the kicker. This appealing outdoor space is next to.....a GAS STATION. Amazing what some smart design can do to mitigate a not so pleasant circumstance.

Transforming a District by Supporting Small Businesses

Kerry McLean is figuring it out. But it isn't easy.

Kerry is Director of Community Development for WHEDco, the Women's Housing and Economic Development Coporation, a non-profit looking to revitalize a mile-long stretch of Southern Blvd. in the Bronx. Attracting businesses to her district hasn't been simple. Property owners are hard to get a hold of. Vacant spaces are in disrepair and show poorly in a market where retailers have other options. And financing for the one's who do come her way is hard to come by. Yet despite these challenges, her district has seen a net gain of seven new business and reduction in the vacancy rate from 24% to 16%. Quite an accomplishment.

Yet her experience has yielded good insight. In a low-income market that struggles to show it's best face, the businesses interested in the district are often the small, inexperienced kind. She has found that not only do current businesses struggle to grow, but new businesses can't get a toehold in the market for lack of financing and technical assistance. To address these needs, WHEDco is sponsoring the 2nd Annual "Grow your Business: Financing and Business Resources Event" tonight at their offices off Southern Blvd.

There are three main ways that organizations can help small businesses, these include:
  1. Training and Technical Assistance (in-house or through partnership). This can include anything from facilitating permitting and licesning, to providing design assistance, to doing general business planning and problem solving.
  2. Providing Access to Capital by facilitating access to for/non-profit lenders and public sector resources and incentives. Think facade improvement grants or low-interest loans..
  3. Foster peer-based assistance and advocacy, including seminars and trainings.
WHEDco is well on it's way to working on all of these issues. So congrat to Kerry and her team!
Click here for a local tv newstory on WHEDco's efforts.