The Main Street process has four points: Economic Restructuring, Organization, Design and Promotion. Promotion is always the one that has been my favorite, even though the economic restructuring is what everyone wants in the end.
Promotion is key in the strategic repositioning of the downtown. It is something to do when you come to a town. It is a draw for people to come to a downtown. For many people, it is what they think of the downtown.
I am going to run through the promotions in some of the towns I have worked in, and talk about the resistance that was offered when I had a promotion that was part of an organized effort approved and planned by the merchants’ group.
My first downtown was Lock Haven. In Lock Haven, they were very interested in promotion. We had good and bad promotions. I had a sidewalk sale there one time that had people from the surrounding towns calling up and asking what we were doing because all of the people were in Lock Haven at my sidewalk sale.
That sidewalk sale involved closing down the street. This is a big deal to the police, especially if the main street is a state road. It also impacted other businesses, such as gas stations and hotels. That promotion, although very, very successful, cost me a lot of political capital. There was staunch resistance from the police, and up to two weeks before the promotion it looked dim. Finally, the Mayor made the call to the chief and told him to drop it and play ball with the revitalization efforts. He did, and it was a successful promotion.
The promotion went on, and as I said, was highly successful, but the backlash I received from the hotel owner in town and the gas stations made it impossible to do it again. By shutting down the street, they had problems with customers and potential guests. There was no one to tell them that they had to accept the promotion, like with the chief of police, so although probably the most single successful event…it did not become annual.
The same problem occurred in Downingtown when I shut down Route 30 for a street festival. I remember that the police were on board after a little persuasion, but the had a representative on our revitalization committee, so it was a little easier. I received a lot of resistance again from a gas station owner, but also so guy who had a business but was not really affected, as he was located two blocks away. It was interesting because he called his state representative from where he lives, who in turn called the state and tried to get my administrative grant defunded. Downingtown’s representative at the time….and I am not going to get into names at this point, strongly supported us and the errant merchant was not successful.
The Downingtown promotion was not successful, and we never attempted it again during my tenure as main street manager. So here are two different incidents, one successful and one not successful, that were stopped— one for being successful and the other for not being successful.
On South Street in Philadelphia, I started a street music program. I thought it was a good idea to renew the flavor of South Street the way it was, as I was dealing with the aftermath of the Mardi Gras celebration riots. I thought it was pretty straight-forward and I had a great relationship with the police. I had initiated a community policing program with them and in general was in good stead. But… but… I was dealing citywide with enforcement. There was a ban on panhandling and because I paid people $50.00 and let them get tips, I created an illegal activity.
Now anyone who has dealt with the city knows that it sometimes is easy and sometimes it is hard to get something done. The level of difficulty even to do something easy is sometimes daunting but if it is difficult from the beginning it probably will not happen. In this case I had the Queens Village Neighbors and the Society Hill Neighbors associations against the idea. I took it to council and it just so happened that it came at a time that they were arresting people at the Market Street Station for playing music for tips (panhandling) and Frank Rizzo Jr. came to my aid and the ban against street music went away citywide.
The South Street program was very successful. It was a time when the Neighbors Associations were trying to get the DUCKS (the tourist amphibious vehicles) out of the neighborhoods. I loved the DUCKS but having people coming through on the DUCKS with the squawkers that made the duck sound was a little too much for the blue haired set. I was able to get the DUCKS to start on 11th and go the entire length of South Street as the route. It made the music more palatable to the neighbors.
The number one question that people asked when they got off the DUCKS was, “How do it get back to South Street?” It was a bonanza of new business, and everyone loved it on the street. I secured personal validation that the crowds were larger when, on prior occasions, during the “Greek Picnic” when South Street went Afro-American for a day or so, it was usually 99 percent black people and me on the street, negotiating barriers to restrict movement. Well, once the street music was underway, people were not only visiting again, but taking time to eat at the restaurants. So like 8:00 PM on the Saturday night during the “Greek Picnic” all of a sudden all these white people were hitting the streets after dinner and there was a parade of black people jamming the streets.
The white tourists were like “what the…” but to me I saw that there were like 35 percent white people on the street. Not that I cared one way or the other what color the people were, but it was a stark contrast to prior occasions and gave context to the increase in the tourist traffic.
In Phoenixville, my first promotion attempt was to initiate an every Friday summer concert series. I met with Rich Kardon from Point Entertainment, and I wanted to see what he thought would draw. He suggested that we recreate the Beatles rooftop concert on top of one of the buildings on the 100 block of Bridge with Beatlemania. We did and it drew 500 people. They hadn’t seen 500 people downtown since the mill closed. It was a success, but a “maybe” type success. I was used to having thousands of people on South Street, and I was down there with 500 people and I spent $3000.00. Of course the rest is history, because those 500 people told people through word of mouth, and the next thing you know, we were getting a lot of people down there on a Friday night. But… but many of the business owners were against it. They were used to going home early on a Friday, and they did not want to stay open. I was told by one of the new “progressive store owners” that I was bringing the wrong element to town. I thought to myself, these are the people who live here. I did not have trouble with the street closing, because I had the borough take back the street from Penn Dot, so the permit to close the street went easily. That was a promotion that was not successful in a universal sense, but I did 14 straight weeks so it had time to catch on, even though I was savaged by some of the merchants as being “out of touch” with my expectations that the town could be revitalized. They were wrong.
These are some examples of how hard it is to do promotions in the downtown and why repositioning a town in the regional marketplace is not easy.
Barry Cassidy is a freelance grant and economic development consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.