Comments to Craig Green on Downtown Investment

PrivateInitiative.jpgIndeed, I had a phone conversation with Craig Greene on stimulating investment in downtown. Here’s is my complete follow-up e-mail:

Hello Craig:

Just to be sure I’ve made myself clear on this topic, the NDDC has a proven approach and specific plans but with the turbulence in the economy, we need to stay somewhat flexible so we can be responsive. The rising costs of energy, the dropping values of homes, as well as the continuing changes in retail due to big boxes, the internet and foreign competition require the people at the NDDC, just like the downtown businesses, to constantly evaluate their efforts and make changes when advisable. When we go longer term, the unpredictability increases.

As you heard in Red Wing and Stillwater, it’s sometimes ten years before you see dramatic changes. You’ve got to keep plugging away year after year, believing that you’re going in the right direction, in the hope that your small accomplishments eventually add up, or multiply, into big changes.

As you know, the NDDC structures its work on a model that has been tested and proven for over three decades, the Main Street’s Four Points. It may seem simple but we have learned that it is so important not to think that any one thing will meet all challenges and take advantage of all opportunities. It takes more than Promotion, marketing and events, it takes more than Organization, increasing leverage and advocating, it takes more than Design, storefronts and streetscape, and it takes more than Economic Restructuring, tweaking the business mix and responding to critical issues, to achieve on-going downtown vitality.

In the area of Organizing, we are pleased that it appears that the City Council will create a Building Board of Appeals, We must continue to work to make sure that the entity meets the spirit of the intent. We will continue to advocate for keeping the Public Library and Liquor Store downtown. Of course, we will also continue to host our Monthly Forums, Quarterly Block Head Gatherings, and Annual Mixers.

As a result of a surge in interest from folks in supporting the NDDC, we’ve had many people join our Events and Marketing Committee. In our recent efforts to get more work done at the committee level, this group may lead the way in creating new initiatives. Getting greater leverage from the efforts in advertising, events, and promotions will be increasingly important.

For progress in the area of Design, we will continue our sometimes quixotic quest for additional bike racks. We will also continue to work closely with City Staff on the bigger picture streetscape planning and implementation. We have developed a particular interest in projects that offer better connections with the Cannon River. Finally, we will gather input, analyze information and make a recommendation on the matter of public toilets in downtown.

In the area of Restructuring, the issue of ever-rising property taxes continues to pose the greatest threat to downtown economic vitality. We are restarting our work with the City Council on an Outside Dining Ordinance and continue to explore the possibilities of a Downtown Management District. Finally, as part of the increased collaboration between the Four Economic Development Partners, the Chamber, the EDA, the NDDC and the NEC, we are going to pursuing coordinated Business Retention, Expansion and Recruitment efforts.

In our conversation, you and I focused largely on the area Design. As you so correctly pointed out, it is in this area that the most visibly dramatic changes occur. People notice projects like Village on the Cannon and The Crossing perhaps more than the complete restoration of the Bierman Building, the Scriver Building, or the Sitze Building. However, all of these projects, large and small, require private financing. There must be an environment that encourages private investment that makes it happen.

Perhaps it’s as simple as the public sector “priming the pump”. Using some combination of financial support or incentives, the city induced the Village on the Cannon and The Crossing project. However, the Bierman and Sitze projects were entirely privately financed. Were those projects induced by the NDDC’s banner program, Downtown Mixers or Taste of Northfield? Was the real reason that Mendota Homes decided to do The Crossing was seeing the private investment in the Bierman Building, the Scriver Building and the Sitze Building? Will the Old Bank Building at 5th and Water be redeveloped because of the inspiration and energy of the Arts Commission, the Skateboard Coalition, and the Kayak Association?

If we keep plugging away at the Four Points, maybe someday we’ll see some big projects like the St. James Hotel renovation and the next door Riverfront Center (and a handful of their many public parking structures) in Red Wing or the renovated Historic Carnegie Library (with adjacent parking structure) in Stillwater. I’ve been told by residents of Red Wing that they prefer our restaurant offerings and residents of Stillwater that they prefer our slower-paced shopping district. Hopefully, we will adopt their good ideas without forgetting our own wise choices.

We believe that Organizing for business-friendliness, Promoting for greater leverage, Designing for private investment and Restructuring for economic vitality will make a difference each month. As the months become years and the years become a decade, the changes will no doubt be visible. Hopefully, the end result will be recognizable as our current vision.

Thanks much,