Discussions about the traits of strong downtowns and what makes them succeed usually focus on larger cities such as Vancouver, BC, Portland, OR, New York, NY or Charleston, SC. However, a lot can also be learned by looking at things on a smaller scale. This happened to the authors, when we recently looked at downtowns in two small Wisconsin communities. What we learned from them is applicable to many other communities of comparable size.
Our experiences in these two communities certainly confirmed that two basic and broadly held revitalization tenets are just as applicable to small communities as they are to large ones: the need for a comprehensive approach to downtown revitalization and the need to focus on leveraging existing assets. The focus here will be on three other topics that evidence these tenets and deserve our attention:
- The surprisingly complex economic development challenges that many small downtowns typically face
- Providing jobs, especially in more rural areas, is a chronic and seemingly intractable problem
- These small communities too often lack the resources and full range of professionals to initiate and manage broad economic changes.
we again found an economy with numerous economic components and related markets that would have to be analyzed:
- Retail and restaurants
- Personal services
- Educational facilities
- A medical clinic
- A seniors’ home
- A high tech manufacturer
Complex Land Use and Transportation Issues. Even more surprising than the number of markets we had to investigate in Sherwood and the depth of the analyses they required were the complex land use and transportation issues that were hurting the downtown:
- A high degree of dispersion that might be more readily expected in a larger, more urban community. Even with its small population, Sherwood has four commercial nodes including a growing highway node that intercepts a lot of residents before they reach the downtown and where significant new businesses want to locate, e.g. a supermarket, a childcare center, restaurants. There is really poor economic agglomeration, and in a small economy economic assets benefit even more from agglomeration
- The downtown is “unfriendly” to pedestrians – it lacks “walkability.” It has significant traffic with lots of trucks. It lacks a solid building wall front and adequate parking spaces. Many of its businesses are closed to shoppers during the day
- An inability to benefit from a nearby “captive market.” Access to an abutting popular state park was changed so visitors no longer had to drive through the downtown – or Sherwood
- An underdeveloped local roadway system that does not bring residents in newer parts of town naturally to the downtown. Also, the State recently proposed a highway expansion through the heart of downtown, which would have demolished several businesses and undermined what little pedestrian activity currently exists.
our team found a number of complex land use and transportation issues to address. However, unlike Sherwood, which faces growing pains associated with exurban growth, Village X is facing strong, complex and seemingly intractable challenges, characteristic of other small, often more rural communities and their downtowns:
- Its region is sparsely populated and has little or no growth
- The regional economy has long been problematic
- Attracting or creating firms that can provide new jobs is tough.