Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Evolution Fresh. Coming near you?

The first Evolution Fresh, a Starbucks spin-off in Bellview, WA
Love 'em or hate 'em, Starbucks has made a splash on commercial corridors throughout the nation and world. For many, the appearance of a Starbucks in a district is a bonafide sign that the community has "made it". Now Starbucks unveils its next concept - Evolution Fresh, serving up smoothies, juice and healthy food. They just opened their first store in Bellview, Washington and have plans for expansion...Starbuck's style. Does this mean that Evolution Fresh will be making waves soon on a corridor near you?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Does your retail attraction pitch hit the indy retailer's sweet spot?

A great piece in today's Oregonian describes how a Portland, OR independent chain went about selecting a site  for its fourth location. The store, Foot Traffic, supplies runners and walkers with shoes, apparel & accessories. When looking to expand, they did what most retailers do - they looked at the data. Co-owner Sean Rivers "settled on a store in the Southeast Portland neighborhood after crunching the zip codes of runners who participate in Foot Traffic's races and those it sponsors." His analysis yielded some useful findings - a few neighborhoods came up pretty frequently. While most of these neighborhoods already had running stores, he was able to pinpoint an opportunity in  the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Sellwood. It had a decent concentration of potential customers...and no running store. As you might have guessed, the rest is history. This past Saturday was the grand opening of the 11-year old chain's fourth location.

So, what do retailers want? The answer is actually quite simple...

  • Enough Customers. Retailers want to know that a community has enough of their target customers to be successful. specialty retailers like Foot Traffic knows their customer - and at the end of the day, they want a location that is convenient to their customer base. In this case, Foot Traffic did a great job of  collected zip code data over time through events and sponsorship. Without this data, it would have been much more difficult to pinpoint the location of their customers. While Foot Traffic may look for runners, did you know that Trader Joe's looks for locations where the average income is $70k or above and a certain % of residents have higher education degrees? Are you looking to attract a toy store to your district? Sharing information about household size and number of children under the age of 10 might be the sweet spot there. The point is, every retailer will look to a different set of metrics depending on their customer base. 
  • No (or limited) Competition. Smaller specialty retailers want complementary retailers in the vicinity, but typically shy away from direct competition. In the case of Foot Traffic, Sellwood had no other running store - so it was a home run. If you are looking to attract a specialty retailer - consider mapping locations of competitors for your pitch to them. These days, Google Maps makes this work a piece of cake. 

What the Foot Traffic story underscores is that you need to know your audience - just like retailers know their customers. If you are looking to attract a specialty retailer, be armed with quality data that quantifies the number of their potential customers that reside or work in your trade area. And be prepared to make the case that the retailer will fill a niche that is currently undeserved. These two key talking points should be part of any pitch you prepare - and it should be customized to the retail category you seek to fill.

Turning Construction Eyesores into Art Assets

We’re on a big public art kick lately at CDA. If you have construction sites, scaffolding, or other eyesores in your district that could use some camouflaging - read on! 

We conducted an email interview with New York's Downtown Alliance's Director of Special Projects, Whitney Barrat, this week about the Alliance's successful Re:Construction program, which turns construction sites in Lower Manhattan into canvasses for artwork. The program has been going strong since 2007, made possible by a Community Enhancement Grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC). The Alliance works with arts consultants, site owners, developers and City agencies to select artists’ proposals that are a good fit for both the specific site available, as well as the local community.

Part of the reason for the program’s success is the Alliance’s trusted presence in the district and ongoing involvement with local development projects and property owners. The program has been so well-received that property owners often approach the Alliance to offer their sites, without having been asked!

Here are some of the works you can find around the district today, followed by some helpful lessons for other district managers looking to bring a similar program to their districts:
The Greatest City on Earth
(Nassau Street between John & Fulton Streets)
Secret Gardens - Richard Pasquarelli
(Chambers Street)

What lessons do you have for other BIDs/community groups that might want to do a similar project? 
  • It is important for artists and site owners alike to understand that construction sites shift, with respect to their physical parameters, their schedules, and budgets. Be flexible!
  • Consider permit requirements (DOB and DOT), as well as insurance.
  • Consider involving the surrounding community in the selection of artists.
  • Consider maintenance costs and responsibility—who will maintain the site? How will repairs be handled?
  •  Don’t forget to plan for deinstallation!

Do you think something like this would be possible for a smaller BID who might not have access to grant money?
  • Yes!   Many other BIDs have followed our lead and have produced artwork on construction sites in their districts. Because of our grant, we’ve never needed to ask site owners to contribute to the costs of the production and installation of the artworks, so fundraising will be more of an issue for a smaller BID or community group. But the costs associated with these projects tend not to be exorbitant, and often the site owners are willing to cover the costs.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Using competitive arts events to draw big crowds

An international art and technology competition called The Epoch Project anticipated to draw a quarter-million visitors to downtown Jacksonville, Florida - was announced last week ("Project aims to draw big crowds to Jacksonville"). The program is modeled after ArtPrize, an arts competition that attracted more than 200,000 visitors to downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan last year.
This competition incorporates a number of different strategies, including some of my favorite pieces from other downtown arts projects and events, and combines them into one:
  • Winners are picked based on public vote (similar to Uncover Church Avenue, which we posted about a few weeks ago)
  • Any space is fair game (as long as the property owner wants to participate) -so art will end up in hotel lobbies, office buildings, storefronts, vacant lots, parking lots - and who knows where else! Every piece of the downtown is eligible to be transformed.
  • It's up to property owners and artists to sign on to the database, pick a good partner and work together to create their exhibition - like Make Music NY... or online dating for artists and venues.
  • The contest aims to create a "Destination for Innovation" with arts, technology, music and "spontaneous celebrations"

Overall this seems to be a great recipe for successful event marketing with a big impact - I cant wait to follow their process and see how it turns out in April 2013.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Roundup: Everyday Facades

Facade improvement programs are a great way to spruce up a district when funds are fairly limited. Below are three examples of facade improvements for "everyday" businesses that aren't typically filed under best practices when it comes to facades....an autobody shop, a corner bodega, and a dry cleaners. With a little TLC, anything is possible.

Facade #1: The Autobody Shop - Can you spot the autobody shop? It's the one with the art hanging in the window!
Auto body shops are not typically a use you welcome on a lively commercial district...but when you can't do much about it, this kind of facade treatment can make a difference.
A facade improvement supported by People's Emergency Center (PEC) in Philadelphia, PA

Facade #2: The Corner Convenience Store - Corner bodegas where I'm from are usually covered in posters with limited visual appeal. This bodega in Boston got facade support from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and now serves both new and old residents alike.

Don Quojote Market in Boston - a great example of how technical assistance and design support can help a long-time tenant weather changes in neighborhood demographics.

Facade #3: The Dry Cleaner - What I love about this facade improvement is the fact that they moved the tailor right in front of the window. Not only does the facade look nice, but this entertainment feature is visually interesting to pedestrians as well.
Bridge Cleaners in downtown Brooklyn, NY

Reducing Overhead Costs for Business Improvement Districts

A building along Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn, NY. The district is managed by the Fulton Mall Improvement Association, one of three BIDs run by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership.
The challenge of running a successful Improvement District is like that of any other non-profit. Finding qualified, professional, capable staff can be a challenge when budgets are tight and salaries, particularly among smaller Improvement Districts, are low. Yet staffing costs and overhead take up a significant chunk of expenses - and the smaller the organization the bigger the payroll cut.

One New Jersey city is taking a bold step to reduce these overhead costs by absorbing their Special Improvement District (SID) into another public agency. According to the City of Bayonne's Business Adminstrator Steve Gallo, the Town Center Management Corporation, the entity that runs the SID, "spends over half its budget on administrative costs such as employees, and consultants. By downsizing and combining operations with the Bayonne UEZ, more resources will be available for more programs within the district." Read more: "City consolidates agencies that oversee business districts"

There are pros and cons to this approach. Absorbing the Improvement District into another entity reduces overhead, but there is also the risk that it will reduce the independence of the downtown organization to advocate for downtown interests without competition or conflict of interest. When staff is shared with other initiatives, the focus on downtown can shift depending on the political winds.

Other cities are also looking at ways to reduce overhead for small BID's as well, testing concepts that would allow multiple these organizations to exist under a single non-profit umbrella, what we might call a "BID light" approach. One example is the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership which manages three Business Improvement Districts located in close proximity to one another. This allows for the sharing of contracts, overhead and staff in a way that results in improved services, at a lower cost, for all three districts.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tips for facing down BID/NID Critics

A building along East Carson Street on Pittsburgh's South Side
As more than a handful of neighborhood commercial districts throughout Pittsburgh explore the formation of Neighborhood Improvement Districts (NIDs), the challenges to formation have begun bubbling up in some very public forums. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this issue would eventually make the papers – and it finally has. In the case of the proposed NID on Pittsburgh’s South Side, the local paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, came out vociferously in opposition to the NID (Bar this tax: South Siders shouldn't pay more for basic services). Typically, BID and NID opposition comes from people who don’t want to pay or don’t think they should have to pay for district management services. Yet what is interesting is that the Post-Gazette didn’t seem to have a problem with the idea that a mandatory assessment should be used to pay for services. Their gripe was that RESIDENTS shouldn’t be forced to pay for additional services that are a direct result of the BUSINESSES in the district.

On the South Side, the issue is primarily that of local bars and restaurants that fill up with young people on the weekend… and the problems that arise as they subsequently stumble out of bars, create chaos and sometimes dangerous conditions for everyone in the community. Try walking Carson Street on a Sunday morning and you’ll also see the need for clean up that other communities simply don’t have to deal with. Should every neighborhood in Pittsburgh pay for services that Carson Street needs that are above and beyond what even reasonable people might call “basic”? Should police be deployed in greater concentrations to Carson Street to deal with unsafe conditions, leaving other communities lacking in police services? When municipal resources are limited, and they always are, giving everyone a basic level of service is expected. But giving some neighborhoods a higher level of service at the expense of other neighborhoods is not. And we haven't even touched upon the marketing and promotional efforts that most Improvement Districts take on - work that most certainly falls outside of what government is typically expected to do.

In an excellent response to the Post-Gazette, Ellen Kight, ED of Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development says “The price of the South Side's success is too much to expect of local government and nonprofits.” She is exactly right. [South Side, please don’t dismiss this opportunity]

It should be noted that in many places, residents don’t pay or contribute significantly to Improvement Districts assessments– that is why they are called Business Improvement Districts, and not Neighborhood Improvement Districts. Yet this does not mean that residents are kept from participating. In many BIDs, residential property owners pay a symbolic $1 assessment which gives them some say in governance and a seat at the table. Engaging residents is important – after all, they are the customers.

For those of you advancing your Improvement District formation efforts, here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years to prevent the media from getting ahead of your narrative
  • Approach and educate your local editorial boards early on with respect to the value of Improvement Districts before your detractors do. Remember, this is like any political campaign. Typically candidates set up meetings and work on convincing the media to make an endorsement. This is exactly how you should approach your effort as well.
  • Cultivate public opinion. In Middletown, CT, where I cut my teeth helping start a Main Street organization in the late 1990’s, we asked the local paper to give us a weekly column called “Mainly Main Street”. As a young staffer, I would write ghost columns for each of our steering committee members. Each week, a column “penned” by one of our prominent committee members would appear in the paper. This helped to put a familiar face on our local support and disarmed critics from the beginning. After a few years of a Main Street program, a small BID was formed with no opposition. Today Main Street in Middletown, CT is bustling with restaurants, a small hotel, and boutique restaurants as a result of our efforts. But it all started with education and outreach.
  • Use your Board. Develop talking points for your board or steering committee that recognize the opposition’s concerns, but provide counterarguments for each. Consider bringing in a media specialist to a board meeting to help prep your board. Your board should be your advocates and public response in the face of criticism.
  • Be ready with your responses. If you do face public criticism, be ready with key supporters (ideally influential local leaders) who are prepared to write the public response. Take care to make sure that the responses come directly from those who will benefit from the program, property and business owners who buy in to the concept. If you have other Improvement Districts in your community, engage them in responses and share the story of their success. A successful Improvement District is a great counterpoint to detractors.
  • Revisit your Assessment Formula or Boundaries. Developing your formula and boundaries is not necessarily a one shot proposition. It is sometimes an iterative process. So be open to revisiting your assessment model and boundaries. In New York, BID boundaries and assessments are a moving target that are formed and reformed as the result of outreach and feedback. Take your time doing outreach to property owners and business owners. If you face vigorous opposition from a few people, see if you can carve them out of the district entirely. In New York, it’s not uncommon to have somewhat strange BID boundaries that keep some detractors out and supporters in. In the case of the South Side, I might suggest dropping the residential contribution. Wouldn’t that address the concerns of some of the loudest opponents?