Inspire • Equip • Restore

Developing Thriving Downtown Communities

It's not that often when I get to work in downtowns that are the best in America, but Rochester is one of those places I've been so fortunate to work in! It's the type of downtown we all want, it just "feels' right. Walking down the street one can quickly identify the nicely planted landscape along the beautifully designed sidewalks. You can't help but notice every building is full of the coolest types of shops and restaurants. I also love the whimsy of downtown Rochester...different types of buildings that come in lots of different colors. It's an amazing downtown, So what did I do there? The following is taken from "The Downtown Geek" herself, Kristi Trevarrow, the rock star Director of Downtown Rochester DDA...

"Downtown Rochester, Michigan (about 40 minutes north of Detroit) with a population of about 12,000 people has been in the downtown revitalization business since 1983. From facade grant programs and farmers' markets to lightpoles and that little light show of ours, we've done it all and everything in between in our 30+ years. So it obviously begs the question, why hold a Downtown Visioning Session? Great question, with many different answers.

First, and specific to our organization, we've had a lot of challenges over the past several years. But with new leadership, stable funding, motivated volunteers and a fresh sense of purpose everyone is looking to "right the ship" and start defining the direction for downtown.

Second, input is always welcome. Heck, in this job, we get it whether we want it or not every time we hold an event or put up a street sign, so why not be proactive by initiating the discussion and engaging the community in the process. Any time you have an opportunity to get people involved in your organization or your efforts is a good day.

And last, but certainly no less important is something that has been my professional mantra for years - you can always be better. The moment you think that your downtown is the best it can be and there is nothing left to do, you're right, and it's time to step aside and let someone else take the lead. And if you truly are at the top of your game, what better time to start to plan for the future? Proactive trumps reactive any day of the week.

Of course, you can't have a Visioning Session without attendees, so that's where the conversation began. We decided on a goal of 150 participants and needed to figure out how best to get there. We could just do a random cattle call through social media, press releases and in-store promotions and that would have worked fine. But we really wanted the key stakeholders in the room, and we began to make a list of those people. Our wish list included elected officials, city officials, boards & commission members, Main Street committee members, property owners, business owners, community leaders, local organizations and residents.

The committee also made the "controversial" decision to not only invite certain key people from the community, but to allow residents to apply online to attend the session. Why would we put ourselves through this? First, we knew that if there were certain people we felt strongly should be there, then we should extend a personal invitation to each of them. But we wanted to also have voices from the greater Rochester community, as Downtown Rochester serves as the downtown for several surrounding communities as well. And speaking of voices from our community, we wanted to engage students as well, inviting students from Rochester College to participate as table scribes for the event.

So great, now we had a plan and a targeted attendee list, but we were missing one thing. We needed the thing that was going to pull it all together - a facilitator. For anyone who has ever worked with me, they would tell you that I pretty much always have a plan when it comes to things like this. So it came as no surprise that when the topic of selecting a facilitator came up, there was only one person I wanted - Ron Drake.

Author, downtown revitalization expert, Main Street enthusiast and pretty much the most positive person that I had ever met - I knew he was the the one for this project. The first time I had the pleasure of meeting Ron was at the National Main Streets Conference in Detroit. What struck me about him, beyond his notable resume, was how impressed he was with what was happening in Detroit. He didn't see blight, he saw opportunity. I knew then that I wanted to bring him to Rochester at some point, and nothing could have been more well-suited than our Downtown Visioning Session. I reached out to Ron and shared what we wanted to do, and he was eager to lend his time and talents to our effort.

From the moment he took the mic, you could feel the positive energy radiating throughout the room. People were genuinely excited to be a part of this Visioning Session, and they were ready to get down to business. Of course, we wanted to set some ground rules to ensure and maintain the positive atmosphere throughout the event. Ron told the group to think big, and believe every idea was a great one. He asked them not to try and solve problems, but to come up with ideas and vision. To keep the group productive and on track, we had three questions for the tables to work on, with 30 minutes spent on each."

To see the questions and how the event turned out, visit The Downtown Geek! click here for more information