Jettison the generic.
Narrow your focus.
Any community that wants to better market itself as a destination and increase economic development needs to stop “trying to be all things to all people,” an expert in destination development and marketing told a group of about 125 Edmonds business owners, city officials and citizens gathered in the Wade James Theatre Thursday night.
Roger Brooks, founder of Seattle-based Destination Development International, was invited by the city’s Economic Development Department to speak, and he brought with him inspiring case studies from more than 400 communities, downtowns, and downtown districts in North America that his company considers to be well-branded and dynamic. Among them: St. Albert, outside of Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, (population 60,000) which transformed itself from a bedroom community to a thriving “botanic arts” city, complete with a $100 million garden center that also doubles as a conference and education center, and Jefferson, Texas (population 2,500) now known as the antique center of Texas with 125 antique dealers.
During his two-and-a-half-hour presentation, Brooks talked about the “20 ingredients of an outstanding downtown.” He started by focusing on some of the “deadly sins of community marketing.” Among them: the temptation to fall back on the generic buzzwords — “explore,” discover,” historic downtown,” “best-kept secret” and “gateway” — that “could fit any community in Washington.”
“There are 546 cities and towns and villages in this state,” Brooks said. “Competition has never been more fierce.”
He encouraged local businesses to take the lead in branding and marketing their communities, and not rely on either the city or citizen-based focus groups to lead the way. “You cannot narrow your focus by public consent,” Brooks said. “It needs to come from the business community.”
He also talked about the importance of preventing “leakage” — essentially residents spending their money outside of town — and offered tips for encouraging both residents and visitors to spend more money and time in Edmonds.
Downtown is “the heart and soul of every community besides its people,” Brooks said. “If locals won’t hang out in your downtown, neither will visitors.” That doesn’t mean that other neighborhoods should be ignored, he added, but downtown needs to be the main focus. When suburban shopping malls arrived in the 1960s, everyone left downtown to shop in malls and strip malls. Now Americans are starting to move toward what Brooks described as “the European standard” of pedestrian-focused, tree-lined streets with plazas that become community gathering places.
Among Brooks’ 20 ingredients for a successful downtown:
– Start with a plan. And Brooks stressed that it should not be a strategic plan, which he believes is a waste of time, but an action plan with a to-do list. (He was quick to note that while the City of Edmonds is just finishing up its own strategic plan, next steps call for that plan to be transformed into action steps, which is a good sign.)
– Describe a strong brand and a retail focus. Examples include the arts, sports tourism, horticulture and antiques. “When you stand for something, all of a sudden there’s a business opportunity,” he said.
– Group like businesses together, following the 10/10/10 rule. Within three linear blocks, downtowns should have 10 restaurants, three “destination” (non-chain or franchise) retail shops and “at least 10 places open after 6 p.m.,” he said. “How you doing Edmonds?” Brooks asked, referring to the fact that most city businesses are not open late into the evening, even though customers are now “shopping later at night.” To draw shoppers, downtown businesses need to “think and act like a mall” with consistent days and hours of operation, he said.
– Parking limits — especially those of less than four hours — are bad. Set aside parking lots or garages with all-day parking and let customers know where they are, Brooks advised. Angle parking increases retail spending by more than 20 percent because people hate to parallel park, and also gives you a third more parking spaces, he added.
– Ensure that public restrooms are available. “Relieved visitors spend more.”
– Develop “gathering places.” Brooks described this as “the age of third places” — referring to three places where people spend time — work, home and “where we go to hang out.” To attract “a creative class you need to create third places,” he said. “That is the future of the United States and every successful community will be built around gathering places.” Wider sidewalks and more street trees encourage retail activity, he added.
– Create a community gateway that creates a good first impression of your community. For example, he said that the “Welcome to Edmonds” sign should be strategically placed where it will make the best impression, and that shouldn’t be next to a strip mall.
– Ensure you have good directional signage, which Brooks called a “wayfinding system,” so that people can find their way around town.
– Make a good first impression with sidewalk cafes and outdoor dining, retail beautification and signage that describes what a business is selling rather than the business name, if it isn’t clear. “Curb appeal can account for 70 percent of first-time sales,” Brooks said.
– Offer activities and entertainment that “bring downtown to life.”
Brooks’ presentation was videotaped and will be aired on Channel 21 in the next few days, according to Stephen Clifton, Edmonds’ Director of Community Services and Economic Development. “Many people spoke to me as they left the event and they are excited to work on enhancing our community and making it a more interesting/lively place to work, visit and live,” Clifton said.
Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling said Clifton deserves credit for bringing Brooks to Edmonds, calling the presentation “just plain fun” and “a terrific energy boost to the community.” Many of the elements that Brooks described are being put into place as part of the Main Street construction project between 5th and 6th Avenues, Earling added.
As for what’s next, the mayor said it should involve “pulling together business, city and community folks who were there to see the level of interest in proceeding. I was impressed six of our council members were in attendance and those that I have spoken to liked his approach.”
While Earling was hopeful the city would be involved in such a project, he reiterated Brooks’ assertion that “the business community should lead. Personally I would be happy to be involved, but property owners and store front leaders need to be out front.”