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Marketing the Downtown District

Last year I was one of a group of two dozen Northfielders sent off to the frozen tundra to receive Blandin Leadership Training.

One of the things that we were taught was called Asset Based Community Development. To perhaps oversimplify, this concept involves looking at your town’s existing strengths as basic building blocks and creating an economic development strategy around those assumed competitive advantages.

To apply this concept on a modest scale, one could focus on the downtown district. An informal inventory of the downtown office users indicates that we have attracted a number of what I call creative industries: arts and design, architecture and engineering, graphics and words. A stroll along Division, Water and Washington Streets reveals that our pedestrian-friendly shopping district is rich in the offerings of design and decoration: art stores, craft cottages and design studios. Even our purveyors of burgers, games and shoes have a regional reputation for the quality of craft.

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Going even deeper than our collection of 19th Century commercial buildings, downtown Northfield has developed character. With the wide variety of arts-related shops and specialized craft studios, we have an increasingly distinctive business district.

This lesson on community assets informed my reading (in the January issue of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Main Street News) about the 16:62 Design Zone, located in a funky old neighborhood of Pittsburgh. They had some cool historic buildings in need of a little investment and a community that wanted a certain kind of economic development

The business leaders believed that this combination of assets had real potential. They decided to promote the area to a specific market niche - businesses that focused on arts and design. The business owners got together to look at branding the district through a shared vision and to promote the neighborhood's assets to attract similar businesses and, ultimately, bring more customers to the area for everyone.

The local non-profit community development corporation helped to bring the businesses together. They were more focused on getting the business owners' support than asking them for funding. The branding strategy didn't cost much because they were basically repackaging what already existed. The CDC just asked local business owners to go visit with their neighbors and get the word out and bring back ideas. Amazingly enough, they did it without the assistance of pricey consultants.

Since the program started in 2000, the effort has attracted 51 new businesses to the area, 30 of which have an arts and design focus. More than 200 new jobs have been created. The area now is recognized throughout the region as the place to go for these types of goods and services. The business district calls what they did "Building the Buzz".

Buzzing indeed. The district has become such a regional draw that other businesses such as cafes and restaurants were attracted to the area. All the new employees created a demand for dry cleaners, drug stores and other neighborhood service businesses. Local real estate agents found the branding of the district attracted clients to the area. Residential support businesses like groceries and hardware stores benefited from the buzz. The economic development resulting from marketing this distinctive business district has been considerable.

At the June 2005 NDDC Downtown Forum, Bruce Schwartau, of the University of Minnesota Extension Service, talked about communities with a regional pull. At the risk of once again oversimplifying, if you’ve got a particular store or mix of businesses that attracts shoppers from outside your community, your restaurants sell more burgers, your stations sell more gas, your galleries sell more paintings and, if you’ve really got it going on, your hotels sell more beds.

So rather than spending our time and money hoping to land the next Cabela’s or Ikea in Northfield, maybe we should recognize our existing assets and promote these strengths on a regional basis. Maybe we should pursue asset based economic development and use district branding and buzz building to strengthen our regional pull and increase our local sales.

In an earlier blog about getting recognition as an Art Town, I noted that we have attracted a number of creative industries: arts and design, architecture and engineering, graphics and words. I suggested that they might be assets on which we could build as part of achieving the Art Town recognition. Perhaps there is more than one possibility for leveraging these assets, perhaps branding our downtown district would provide a synergistic boost for economic development.

I think it's an idea that merits further consideration.