A ‘No-Nonsense’ Manual for Downtown Revitalization

Published March 25, 2016

Review of Successful Smaller Downtowns & Business Districts: What Every Businessperson, Property Owner, and Municipal Official Should Know, by John L. Gann Jr., CarpeHoram, 2015, 72 pp., $59.75 at http://www.salesjobsandtaxes.com/

Geography plays a role in where businesses take root and grow, and choosing the right location to plant economic seeds is a key factor many business owners and lawmakers ignore, often to their own detriment.

In Successful Smaller Downtowns & Business Districts: What Every Businessperson, Property Owner, and Municipal Official Should Know, author and urban planning expert John L. Gann Jr. displays common policy mistakes made in the private and public sectors. Gann says many businesspeople and government officials plant the seeds of business activity in infertile soil with the expectation economic growth will take off in those unfriendly fields. Unfortunately, this rarely occurs, says Gann.

This manual, which is targeted at business owners and municipal lawmakers, was written to help save those whose fortunes and futures are tied to the well-being of city business districts. Instead of using abstract theories, Gann fills his book with actionable suggestions and tales of real-world experiences.

“The manual is not an academic work,” Gann writes. “You won’t find theory, history, or pages of data. It is not a stuffy scholarly treatise, but a useable no-nonsense action manual.”

Defining Success

The first key to success outlined by Gann is defining what success looks like. Success can mean many things, but the author says downtown business success is defined by how well it attracts people, not how fancy the buildings are.

“The important element for success of any place that seeks to attract people is not the buildings,” Gann writes. “It’s the activities.

“Business districts have been known to flourish in the absence of street trees, attractive signage, and Victorian architecture,” Gann wrote. “Commercial areas have prospered with crumbling sidewalks, traffic congestion and even noisy elevated trains overhead. Business centers can be remarkably adaptable to less than perfect physical or aesthetic conditions. But no business can continue to be vital if it loses the activities that attract people.”

Focusing on Consumers

One common mistake made by urban planners and business owners is forgetting that the success of a business district is tied to the success of businesses in the district. Gann says too many business owners become fixated on improving the look and prestige of their buildings while failing to focus on improving customers’ experiences.

Gann says successful business owners work to provide goods and services customers demand, allowing the superficialities to work themselves out.

“What draws them is not beautification but merchandise—farm-fresh groceries, art, crafts, hard-to-find specialty items, and good things to eat and drink on the spot,” Gann wrote. “No one cares about building facades or street furniture. People just want to buy or sell. That’s pretty much the definition of a business area.”

Residents and Consumers

Another area Gann explores is the role housing development plays in promoting downtown economic growth.

“Housing makes downtown into a neighborhood,” Gann wrote. “We grow attached to our neighborhoods. So cities do well to encourage townhouses and apartments near downtown. Older business areas should grow, expand, and retain the best kinds of activities to bring and keep more people downtown longer and more frequently.”

Real-World Examples

Gann shows readers the importance of emulating models employed by successful businesses, such as Walmart and Starbucks, which Gann says has been able to overcome its status as “just another coffee shop” by creating a distinct “feel” associated with the brand.

“Starbucks sold a place and not just a beverage,” Gann wrote. “It became a place to go to relax and recharge and not just the contents of a cup. The chain identified itself with the Third Place concept of University of West Florida professor emeritus Ray Oldenburg. The Third Place is a place that is neither home nor work where you can find brief relief from both. In so doing, Starbucks helped make the surrounding business area also a place to go and spend some time.”

The core lesson underlying every part of Gann’s book is one every business leader and elected official should learn in order to properly promote economic revitalization in their cities: When businesses and government help consumers get what they want, everyone wins.

Veronica Harrison ([email protected]) is marketing manager at The Heartland Institute.