Downtown Voices

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October 27, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sam Grabarski
Sam Grabarski

Tricks (or treats) for successful downtowns Or, what I learned on a trip to Cleveland The best Halloween costume I ever had was a rabbit suit with a red nose that would blink on or off with a button in my pocket. It was worth its weight in gold in the ethnic bars my father haunted in my childhood, where extra-large candy bars and dollar bills would drop like autumn leaves into my pillowcase. If I hadn't outgrown the rabbit suit, I could have paid my way through college wearing it.

I recently attended the annual convention of the International Downtown Association. I felt like a kid in a rabbit suit again, filling my pillowcase with good ideas that dropped from every session. Cleveland was the location, which itself served as a good example of best and questionable practices. The city is extremely proud of its sports facilities on the lakefront. But the mile of vacant lots, rail tracks and cow paths between those facilities and Cleveland's downtown business district makes our Metrodome look centrally placed by comparison. And the area around the stadiums looked dead on the nights I visited there.

"Are Big Ticket Items Worth It?" was one of the best sessions of the conference. The skeptical economist said, "No, unless they are well-sited, and the sports team commits to develop the land around them and guarantee job growth."

He said the best reason to build new ballparks or football stadiums is to refocus entertainment spending on the central business district, which can be left behind as developers try to build "Instant Old" in the suburbs. The ballpark architect said "locate parking so people will walk through the retail district on their way to and from the games."

The professional dealmaker in that session said the best economic and political results are produced by "bundling" sports facilities with various other priorities of local government, such as transit, parks, housing or small business development. That's a good sketch of the proposal Minneapolis and Hennepin County will take to the State Capitol in 2004. His presentation concluded with a fascinating story of Snapple paying over $100 million to New York City to become "the official beverages" of the school district.

The annual awards luncheon was entertaining and inspirational. Cone Man helped one city cope with major street construction. His goofy suit, campy media reports and frequent personal appearances during rush hours appear to have kept drivers in a good mood during some annoying times. Another city started a storage center for homeless people, where personal belongings are safe, and health and job counseling are free on the side.

The retail sessions were particularly interesting. One expert said to script a two-hour trip for customers that cannot be found in any shopping mall. Another emphasized how cities have ruined retail districts with transit malls and one-way streets that ruin the pedestrian environment. The placement of incompatible establishments next to each other, and the sour interaction of the patrons they attract, was cited as a problem in some districts. Those points are a tuning fork to the song we must sing to ensure the successes of City Center, Block E, Hennepin Avenue Theater District and Nicollet Mall. Based on e-mails and police reports, we have some street thugs bothering people in Downtown lately. Other cities use security ambassadors to make their downtowns "an inhospitable place" for bad street behavior.

Another speaker suggested there's a strategic difference between trips to a retail mall ("errand" shopping) verses a visit to a central business district (an "experience" trip). He suggested that we should publicize our star chefs and charismatic bar owners as celebrities. People are drawn to meet or hang out with these "characters" because they are an interesting alternative to the blandness found in strip mall restaurants and malls. Heritage tourism was cited as a growing trend. Some cities are installing signage about the historical context of their streets and buildings ("The History Beside You" Model).

By the way, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is a stunning place to hear and buy music, learn about the evolution of the art form, and see the artifacts of popular music. Among the hundreds of costumes on display, I didn't see one rabbit suit. But, that seems to be the only look that rockers didn't try along the way.

Sam Grabarski is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group of business leaders.