Thursday, May 30, 2013

Round-Up: Finding Inspiration in Downtown Contests

The winning entry of Design Downtown
Harrisonburg, VA
Contests are a great way to drum up some excitement about your downtown. Some communities use these events to drive downtown visitation, others as fundraisers, and still others as a way to encourage downtown entrepreneurship. Below is a roundup of some fun downtown contests that might serve as inspiration for your district.

  • Design Downtown Contest by Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, Harrisonburg, VA. This contest is a great way to engage local artists that also doubles as a fundraiser. Local artists and university students are invited submit an artistic design that celebrates "the positive growth and changes" of the historic district.  Last year's winner and runner up were both posters that are now available for purchase at for $10 or $5. Winners participate in a special downtown exhibit and have their designs reproduced on downtown merchandise, including t-shirts, posters and travel coffee mugs. 
  • Light Up Downtown Holiday Contest, sponsored by the City of San Antonio, Texas. This event encourages holiday lights that drive pedestrian traffic to downtown and help businesses increase sales during the holiday season. Participating businesses compete to have the "Best and Brightest Holiday Light Display." There are four winning categories, "Best Storefront", "Best Building", "Best Non-Profit", "Best Use of Space" and a "Greenest Energy" award. Voting is open to the public via on-line voting.
  • Calling All Dreamers Business Plan Competition, sponsored by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, Sacramento, CA. Entrepreneurs vie for a prize with a value of $135k. This contest highlights retail attraction efforts, and helps build buzz in the entrepreneur community that downtown is a great business destination. Winners receive  free rent for a downtown location, startup capital and business support services.
  • Downtown Albany Blues Music Contest, sponsored by the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District. This event drives helps establish downtown as a music destination and drives downtown visitation. Blues bands competed for the prize of playing at one of the City of Albany's "Alive at Five" outdoor concerts over the summer.Downtown in Focus, sponsored by the Downtown Dayton Partnership, the City of Dayton and the Dayton Daily News, Dayton, OH. One of the problems I often have when working with clients and creating marketing material for their retail attraction efforts is the lack of good professional photos. I like this contest because it is a great way to showcase downtown, while building an archive of interesting photos for use in both print and digital media. The contest has both an amateur and a professional division. Winners receive $250 cash prices and a gift basket of commemorative items. All entries are displayed in an exhibit hosted in the lobby of a downtown building. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Far Rockaway Gets Support for Commercial Revitalization after Superstorm Sandy

Kevin Alexander, ED of RDRC giving APA planners a
tour of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy.
As a member of the APA-NY Metro Chapter's Economic Development Committee, I am so pleased to announce the release of a report outlining post-recovery recommendations for the Rockaway Development & Revitalization Corporation (RDRC).

It Takes a Village
The aptly named "Sand Bar" along the
destroyed boardwalk in Far Rockaways, Queens 
After Hurricane Sandy hit, it was clear that many waterfront communities would need tremendous help with recovery, but connecting those in need with resources quickly can be difficult following a massive natural disaster like Sandy. The hurricane effectively resulted in the closure of 90% of all businesses in some areas of the Far Rockaways. Anyone involved in community development in the area was being besieged by calls for help, and figuring out how to manage and deploy those resources is a challenge onto itself. Like many others in the region I wanted to find a way to help, and so I reached out to my friend and Coro NL alum  Kevin Alexander, Executive Director of RDRC. His needs were herculean, and like many others affected by the storm, he was struggling to figure out where to begin. The first thing we did was set him up with Lucky Ant, a location-based crowd source funding site to raise a few thousand dollars for local businesses. I then put him in touch with James Rausse, the new President of the APA-NY Metro Chapter. Together we hatched a plan to engage interested local planners in a strategic planning exercise that would help Kevin develop a short term action plan for his organization's recovery response efforts. Our early efforts were further aided by yet another friend, Anat Gerstein of Anat Gerstein Inc, who helped secure critical press and television coverage. It's moments like this when you realize how critical relationships and networks are to getting things done quickly!

Diagnosing the Challenges - APA takes the lead
The APA NY Chapter was among the most significant outcomes of the effort to help RDRC. APA NY galvanized dozens of urban planners throughout the region and nation in an effort to diagnose the challenges and define a feasible recovery strategy for RDRC to follow. Volunteer survey teams, led by Mandu Sen and Nina Arron, approached a total of 297 businesses over the course of five months. The findings made it clear that even months after the recovery had begun, there remained a significant lack of coordination among City, State and Federal agencies. A key finding of the report found that most businesses had "difficulty taking advantage of available financial relief and other relief  because of the complexity of the required paperwork. Business owners did not have a clear understanding of the different roles of each government agency nor of the amount of time they should expect to wait for assistance." While "one-stop" shops for financial relief had been set up to help, we found that many business owners could not take advantage of these resources. The distance of these locations from their place of business made it difficult for them to pay a visit. Some business owners also had concerns about confidentiality and resisted visiting these locations. In other cases, the owner was often the only one available to tend to the store, making a visit impossible during store hours. Moreover, the fact that so many automobiles had been totaled during the storm made transportation to and from these centers very difficult.

APA Planners in action, including
James Rausse and Kevin Alexander in front of a
closed Key Foods grocery store. 
Offering Recommendations
One of the most significant recommendations in the report is that of a mobile recovery unit funded and staffed by Federal, State and Local governments to educate and provide one-stop technical assistance to businesses applying for grants, loans, and other resources. This would enable business owners to set up appointments and pay the mobile center a visit in close proximity to their place of business. The report encourages RDRC to apply for discretionary funding from City Council or private foundations and banks to seek capital needed to purchase a vehicle for this purpose.

Larisa Ortiz and Kevin Alexander in
front of a damaged business
While the report focused on small businesses, it also outlined a series of recommendations for transportation and housing, including the coordination of lower cost fares with the Long Island Railroad in light of the closure of local subway lines and the loss of many cars that had been waterlogged and rendered unusable.

For more on the report and the local APA-NY Metro Chapter, click here.

Thank you's are in particularly order to some of the planners who made sure this report made it to the finish line, particularly Hillary Papineau, Heidi Exline and Mandu Sen of the Business Recovery/Food Access Team!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Are you kidding me? A ruling by a California judge ruling defies basic economic logic

I could barely believe what I was reading the other an unprecedented move, a California judge has ordered the dissolution of the Arts District Business Improvement District in downtown Los Angeles. Why, you ask? Basically the legal argument is that economic development services do not benefit property owners. Huh? Forgive me, but I'm having a really hard time understanding this, so I decided to pick apart the issues one by one. ["Judge Orders Arts District BID to Dissolve", 5/16/13, LA Downtown News].  And if you don't think this argument is coming to a community near you, believe me, it is...
ACCORDING TO THE NEWS ARTICLE, the order centered on the judge's finding that the "BID spent tax dollars on economic development services that did not provide a special benefit to area property owners." 
RESPONSE: To suggest that economic development services are not a special benefit to area property owners reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how markets work. Property value is a function of use. The more revenue a use generates, the more the user can afford to pay in rent. As any economist can tell you, this means that the more rent the higher the land value. It's common sense. So let's take this a step further. This means that activities that are associated with improving the underlying economic and business environment (which is what economic development activities are) ultimately improve the cash flow of businesses and help area property owners. OK Judge, so how is it that economic development services are not a special benefit? I don't follow.  
ACCORDING TO THE ARTICLE apparently "State law says that cities can only use assessment districts to pay for services that constitute special benefits for the people who pay the taxes. Services that benefit the general public, or those that function generally to raise property values, are not covered."
RESPONSE: Maybe the State law if flawed, but if I owned property, I would be quite happy if my investment in the Downtown District resulted in an increase in my property value. Wouldn't you? That would be called a "return on investment" or "ROI" by most people. So explain to me how a positive ROI is not a benefit to participating property owners? This rationale defies understanding. Any business school grad should be scratching her head right now.   
ACCORDING TO THE ARTICLE, the judge questioned whether "economic development efforts, such as distributing marketing materials to attract investment to the area or touring the neighborhood with real estate investors, constitute what are known as “special benefits.”
RESPONSE: Marketing material that serve to attract investment are fundamental activities that improve a downtown environment. Ask anyone in the commercial real estate industry. What developer, broker, or property owner sits around *hoping* that investment and improvements will find them? Ludicrous, right? Those in the real estate industry know that promotion, communication of market information, taking site selectors to visit your site...these are all critical tasks that lead to signed deals, that in turn lead to investments that improve a downtown area. 
What is missing is a fundamental understanding that improving the mix of uses in a downtown - which is what real estate investment does - improves the overall business environment. Economic research bears this out clearly. Consumers are drawn to communities that offer both retail density and great store mix. If a community does NOT offer density and mix, corridor performance, as measured by property values, retail sales and customer preference all take a nose dive. A comprehensive 2009 study of commercial corridors completed by Econsult,  a econometrix research firm based in Philadelphia states this clearly. They found that, "a good store mix is very strongly (italics mine) associated with good corridor performance. A good store mix can help draw a wide spectrum of shoppers ..It is no surprising that store mix is important, as single-owner shopping centers and malls place great importance on seeking a good store mix for their centers." So let me see if I get this right. Downtown's are facing fierce competition from malls and traditional single owner shopping centers - yet promotion and marketing for the purposes of investment that ensures a level playing field is being outlawed. Tell me how this makes any sense?  
ACCORDING TO THE ARTICLE, “The court looked at the BID’s activities and said you can’t charge property owners for what is essentially a PR campaign,” said Geoff Stover of the law firm Steinbrecher & Span, who represented the property owners in the complaint. 
RESPONSE: When communities need to attract investment, sometimes a marketing campaign is exactly what they need. Tenants in malls are used to paying CAM charges - called Common Area Maintenance. Many times, these charges include marketing the mall or shopping center. BID assessments are effectively the same thing as CAM charges, yet BID opponents posit that you "can't charge property owners" for marketing services. OK, this makes no sense. 
SO, WHAT IS THE OUTCOME IF THIS RULING IS ALLOWED TO STAND?!? Sure, the streets won't be cleaned and there will likely be an uptick in quality of life crimes, but more significantly, if you keep BIDs from engaging in economic development activities and attracting investment, and DISSOLVE them, you effectively kill the one of the most effective public policy tool that property owners have to collectively influence the destiny of their asset. What a shame.