Elevating Downtown: Placemaking, community commitment essential to revitalization.

Author:Orr, Vanessa

What do Oklahoma City; Cleveland; Cincinnati; Boise, Idaho; and Bend, Oregon have in common? Visitors to these cities--and the people who live in them--are benefitting from the fact that their downtown areas have undergone a revitalization, attracting businesses, tax dollars, and tourists that contribute to the area's overall economy.

"When you look at other cities across the US, you can see the rebirth of community and economy that occurs from reinvestment in downtown areas," explains Bill Popp, president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation. "And it's not just the downtown area that becomes vital again; we've seen in case after case that there is growth in economic activity in outlying areas thanks to a more dynamic downtown core."

The Downtown Difference

For years, people lived and worked in cities before the attraction of suburbia took hold. As people moved out of downtown areas, apathy--and sometimes crime--moved in. Today, more people and companies are moving back downtown, but cities have to make it attractive enough to interest diverse demographics.

"Getting people and businesses to move to Anchorage is predicated on the community being inviting and attractive to the workforce," says Popp. "We have been focused on the national talent wars that have been going on for the last five or so years, and we expect things to get even more intense, looking at projections of national labor force shortages in the next decade."

According to Popp, there are several critical elements that make up a vital downtown. The first is that the city center has a large resident population, which in turn attracts new businesses, such as pharmacies, grocery stores, dry cleaners, and restaurants.

"In the core of downtown Anchorage, there are hundreds of people; not thousands," says Popp. "Other cities of our size have a population

of 5,000 to 10,000 people, so it's important that we expand our housing opportunities to develop a strong resident population base."

Mixed-use spaces are also important, such as having a coffee shop or retail business on a ground floor with housing on the upper floors. Downtown cores also need to be walkable and contain cultural elements such as music, art, and nightlife. According to Popp, an "activated" downtown means having something going on for 300 days or more each year.

And of course businesses have their own list of criteria that must be met before they decide to invest in an area that is in the process of being revitalized. These include market opportunities, investment cost, and the ability to attract and retain a workforce.

"Ten years ago, workforce attraction and retention were not even in the top ten of what a business looked at to open or relocate." says Popp. "Now, if a city can't offer that, they are not even on a business' radar."

In order to attract a viable workforce, downtown areas need to provide not just amenities but affordable and ample housing.

"While living in downtown Anchorage may be desirable, there are not adequate...

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