"Downtown is important because it’s the heart and soul of any community. If you don’t have a healthy downtown, you simply don’t have a healthy town."
- Ed McMahonChair, National Main Street Center Board of Directors
At a time when communities large and small are demanding vibrant downtowns and places to gather, it is often difficult to know where to begin the complicated process of revitalization, and there is a saying about eating elephants that applies here as well. The Wooten Company has helped communities across North Carolina navigate the process, several critical steps of which are outlined below.
GAIN PUBLIC BUY-IN
In today’s shifting demographics and tense political environment, municipalities often find themselves playing Mediator between disagreeing segments of the public. On one side of the coin, many citizens value the size and character of their hometowns and are protective of the mainstays that are the foundation of this. On the other side, many citizens see opportunities for growth and economic development in wise investments within their downtowns. As the voice of the community as a whole, it is an understatement to say that gaining consensus on issues such as these is challenging. Prior to any concerted effort in revitalizing or improving a downtown, a robust and comprehensive public engagement process must take place. This serves not only to ensure that taxpayer dollars are appropriately spent but also to prepare business owners and their customers are prepared for the disruption that a major streets project can cause. These discussions should take place across as many communication channels as possible to avoid leaving out any one group. For example, in addition to soliciting input at Town Hall meetings and pop-up public feedback booths during events, many online tools exist such as MetroQuest, PublicInput.com, and MySidewalk. These online platforms help to bring the many siloes of conversation that occur into one, virtual, public hearing. Combine these with building a good relationship with local newspapers, and the backbone for a well-received investment will be set.
SECURE THE RIGHT PARTNER
Consulting firms exist to bridge the gap that lies between an idea and a ribbon cutting. Each has areas of specialization that are invaluable during a particular project, and they should be asked for their advice in the earliest stages of any public investment. Streetscapes present one of the most diverse multi-disciplinary challenges for a consultant, as there are usually Planning/Zoning, Transportation, Stormwater, Water and Sewer, Electrical and Telecommunications Utilities, Landscape Architecture and Economic Development impacts to consider all within one project, and all within a predefined and constricted space where businesses require uninterrupted access for their customers during construction. This means that selecting a teammate to help manage the process is critical, and not to be taken lightly. Look to firms who first of all have experience in working within the conditions that your downtown presents. Is there heavy traffic or are the roads owned by DOT? Have underground utilities been rehabbed, replaced or even mapped in the past? Is there a dense commercial district that will be impacted by construction? These are all questions to ask that go beyond the visioning exercise that often marks the beginning of a downtown streetscape, and are all points of experience to request when deciding on who to partner with. A beautiful streetscape can perform wonders for a downtown district, but only the right partner can help navigate the complicated process.
IDENTIFY AND PLAN FOR FUNDING
Projects that involve downtown areas can be likened to renovating an older home. What exists in plain view is normally only part of the story, and you don’t know for sure what you’ve gotten into until construction is well underway. Because of this, it is important to begin the process with an available pot of money that can be referred to as plans take shape. Budgeting for the worst and still leaving an aggressive contingency is the only way to endure the unforeseen issues that will arise unscathed. Many municipalities are fortunate to have a reliable tax base and carefully thought out Capital Improvements Plans to keep budgets on track, but even if a project can be fully funded, there are always opportunities to supplement these funds with low-interest or principal-forgiven loans, or even grants. The right consultant should be able to leverage your Master Plan to gather information and help submit on State sources such as Department of Commerce, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Transportation and more. Additionally, the right consultant can help apply for Federal funding sources through Housing and Urban Development (Community Development Block Grants), Natural Resource Conservation Service, US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Transportation (BUILD grants) and more. Lastly, thinking outside of the box can net some lucrative support from non-profits that include the Main Street America program, various health-based initiatives, and environmental advocacy groups.
Having been long-committed to offering expert design and engineering assistance, The Wooten Company partners with the region's best Landscape Architects to supply communities with all of their Main Street needs. We pursue these collaborative efforts to combine both the creative and analytic sides of the brain to design and implement urban spaces for people to gather and businesses to grow. It is our belief that a beautifully designed streetscape does more than simply connect spaces and places; a well-designed streetscape has the power to define the value and character of a city.