MML #4: Planning Makes Downtown Revival Happen


MML #4: Planning Makes Downtown Revival Happen

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Oct. 21, 2018)

Grand Rapids, MI- Downtowns across Michigan vary.  Some are desolate ghost towns, bypassed by highways and snubbed for big box stores. While others are vibrant centers of community life.

Thriving downtowns do not happen by accident, and while there can be some organic growth, the true key to prosperity is having a good plan.

Patrice Frey, President of the National Main Street Center, spoke to a room of over 1,000 elected officials and city administrators from around Michigan at the annual Michigan Municipal League (MML)/ Michigan Association of Planning Annual Convention.

She shared a series of 11 lessons learned from years of helping Downtowns across the country blossom.

1. Leadership. In order for any plan to come together there needs to be strong leadership that includes both residents and businesses. Those leaders need to see the bigger picture beyond their own immediate needs.

2. Comprehensiveness. Frey said there is no silver bullet in Downtown development.  “There is no one thing that will revive a downtown,” she said.  “You expect that if you do one project people will come, or if you attract one business everything will be better… You have to focus on several things at once.

The “Main Street Approach” includes economic vitality, design, organization and promotion. This tried and tested approach has worked in over 1,100 Main Streets across the county, including rural, urban and suburban communities.

3. Community lead/volunteer rich. “The days where a couple people go in a room and decide what to do in a downtown are over.  You need robust community involvement,” Frey said.

4. Strategic. “How can we make sure communities are as strategic as possible?” Frey said. She recommended creating an “affirmative statement,” about what specifically groups are trying to do in their downtowns.  People tend to want the same general things – economic vitality, a place where people want to live, work and play.  Yet looking at a community’s assets can make that vision more specific.  In Boyne City downtown development focused on natural resources.  In Owosso they focused on a “day trip” strategy to focus on retail.  In Milan they focused on cultivating entrepreneurs, fostering maker-spaces and markets for creative entrepreneurs to thrive.

It also helps knowing what not to do. It’s easy to get sidetracked if an idea comes up, but if it doesn’t fit in with the overall plan, it may be best not to waste the time or resources.

5. Asset-based. Communities should not just try to copy others, but look at what is unique to them.  Do you have a signature event? What do you have already that can grow? Are you a college town? Do you have bicycling or recreation?  Natural features?  “Look around and see what assets you have locally, and build on that,” Frey said.

6. Grow entrepreneurship. Different ways to support small business include offering one-stop problem solving, entrepreneurship classes, and by finding financial, social and human capital for entrepreneurs.

7. Prioritize Downtown Housing. Adding residential to downtowns helps grow the base of shoppers and volunteers who take a vested interest in downtown success.  “Even a few units can have an impact,” Frey said.  “One unit can spend $8,000 to $18,000 in their downtowns in just a year.”

8. Save Historic Buildings. Historic buildings help create character and a sense of place for communities. But they also foster entrepreneurship.  “When you see new construction, nine times out of ten you get big box stores or chains. The rentals are the first to pack up and leave when times are tough,” Frey said.  “Older buildings are more appealing to small businesses.”

9. Professionally Led. Communities that have successfully been revived have invested in full time leadership. “It’s hard to revitalize unless you have someone who wakes up every day with the mission of ‘how are we going to implement this vision?’” Frey said.

10. Networked. “There’s no substitute to being able to connect with people that are doing the same kinds of things as you,” she said.  “Learn from others.  Don’t make the same mistakes.”   She also said that success comes from learning what others do right, and taking ideas that work.

11. Enthusiastically, Relentlessly and Unapologetically Incremental. Communities can, and should, find small things to do that are lighter, quicker and cheaper to get the ball rolling on excitement in Downtowns.  But the real change happens over time.  “Small steps add up to something big,” Frey said.  “The average Great American Main Street winner is 17 years into their revitalization process.”

The tips helped elected officials and staff understand more about the value of investing in downtown programs such as Main Street programs and Downtown Development Authorities.

In Michigan Oakland County has led the way in Downtown revitalization, with nearly every downtown participating at some level.  Learn more about Main Street Oakland County here.

The National Main Street Center offers programming and resources for Downtown redevelopment.  Check them out online at

This article is a series based on presentations from the Michigan Municipal League (MML)/ Michigan Association of Planning Annual Convention held in Grand Rapids, MI Sept. 20-22, 2018.  For more MML-related stories click here.  For more on the Michigan Municipal League, visit their website

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