Downtown Place Branding: The High-Wire Act

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Petula Clark knew it and so do economic development organizations.

YFactor offers some insightful thoughts on economic development and downtown place branding that notes the high-wire act that economic development organizations sometimes have to perform in  promoting their central business districts without ignoring – or worse, harming – other business districts in the community.

It can be a very delicate balancing act. No doubt that downtown relevancy is a key component of community economic development strategy, one that is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Downtowns aren’t just centers of commerce anymore – they often are also centers of culture, entertainment and residential living, and their vibrancy can be a key part in making them centers of talent that draw and develop knowledge companies.

As author Mike Dachuk notes,  ”A vibrant downtown can create a unique destination that serves as an economic advantage for the entire community, even as a unifying symbol. Its role as a place for making connections can be an important strategic element of regional economic development. Connectivity has become vital in this mobile information age, especially for attracting young people in the creative class.”

Nashville knows it. As part of its economic development strategy, Partnership 2020 – the economic development arm of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce – has made he partnership has made talent recruitment one of  the cornerstones of its overall economic development strategy. Promoting Nashville’s livability is a key part of that strategy. Though Nashville has a number of vibrant business district throughout the city, Partnership 2020 leaders recognize that a strong downtown core with abundant entertainment, cultural and residential living options benefits the entire community.

It is that downtown vibrancy that attracted ServiceSource,  a service revenue management company that works to increase recurring revenue for hardware, software, health care and life sciences companies, to Nashville’s central business district, where it has since expanded. The type of workers the company tends to recruit favor working in a vibrant urban core.

Charlotte is another city where young people are driving the downtown experience – or in Charlotte parlance, the Uptown experience. Charlotte, too, has endeavored to create a lively central business district experience.

Like, Nashville, it has a number of thriving business districts throughout the city, but Uptown, once a bit sleepy after 5 p.m., is a hub of  restaurants, unique retail and cultural and entertainment gems like the Mint Museum and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Significantly, Uptown has built a strong residential core that numbers more than 13,000 people. An Uptown youth movement is aided by major expansion and investment by the region’s colleges and universities to increase their Uptown presence.

Wichita also enjoys a number of thriving business and commercial areas. And it also is experiencing new growth and investment in its downtown, an outcome that did not occur by happenstance. A planning process that began in 2009 provided a blueprint for growth that built on successes already in place including the bustling Old Town district adjacent to downtown.

Smaller communities have a less complicated issue when it comes to downtown branding. Generally, there’s just one central business district to rally around and devote resources to, and often those efforts are aided by initiatives such as Main Street programs or other efforts.

Larger communities, though, have more complex issues, and promoting their central business districts must be weighed against the needs of other commercial district. Still, as in the cases of Nashville, Charlotte and Wichita, lively central business districts can be a major drawing card in attracting new investment and jobs that will lift an entire community.

How does your community promote its central business district and what’s your strategy for encouraging downtown growth but also nurturing your other business districts? Share your thoughts.