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10 energizing actions your small-town downtown can do now

10 ideas to kickstart revitalization in your downtown

10 energizing actions your small-town downtown can do now

By Gregg McLachlan

Many small-town downtowns tend to have the same problem: There’s a lack of activity. A sidewalk sale here and there is an old-school way of generating excitement. And even then, it’s a one-off. Downtowns need sustained idea innovation that the public notices and recognizes. When you do this the public is left with an emotion “Hey, they are really trying with new ideas!”

You can create that emotion by rolling out small things now. You don’t need grants to do any of these 10 things below (so hey, no more excuses of having no money). You don’t need to wait for grand revitalization reports, go grovelling to to a town council about needing money, or forming more endless committees.

Just start doing things now. Today. Not a year from now.

Start evaluating your downtown progression based on actions rather than words.

Too many struggling downtowns stay paralyzed, thinking they can hit the revitalization money jackpot and magically turn things around overnight. Not. The road to success always begins with efforts from within, every day, at street level. Revitalization is an end process of many small steps that lead to that outcome. The landscape is littered with downtowns that got new heritage lampposts installed as part of as municipal-funded streetscape improvement plan, and then the downtown itself did nothing else to complement that effort.

Here are 10 simple action-based things your small-town downtown can do, and show the public you are working hard to bring energy back to your downtown and kickstart revitalization efforts from within rather than waiting for others.

1. Wifi Here signs

Get branded Wifi Here signs and put them up on the exterior storefronts of every business that is offering wifi to customers.

2. Create a Main Street Facebook page

This is completely different than the usually dormant or once-a-week posts on Facebook pages of local chambers of commerce or BIAs. This is a central Facebook page specifically created for your small-town main street businesses to use and post to. It’s also a one-stop Facebook page for your residents to visit and see content from all the businesses. It is administered by the participating businesses who will be given Facebook administrator privileges to the page. Tip: Keep the page specific to businesses in one central core and resist the temptation to have it evolve into retail sprawl beyond the page’s core focus.

3. Monthly VIP Nights

Downtown businesses are always getting in new stock and products. Stores unpack boxes, put stuff on the shelves, and then think the public has ESP to know new stuff has arrived. They don’t have ESP. Give your best customers, or interested new customers, exclusive looks at what is new. Think of it like a Tupperware party with a modern twist. A few refreshments and nibbles, and voila, you have a series of VIP Nights.

4. Sandwich boards

Put professionally branded sandwich board signs in front of businesses. These signs are so adaptable. They can feature specials. They can have words of humour. They can have social media promotions. Most importantly, they provide readable content at sidewalk-level for pedestrians who don’t always look left or right in a storefront window because they are looking straight ahead (where your sandwich boards will be!).

5. Mini performance hubs

Convert one or two parking spaces into mini performance ‘amphitheatres’ with a summer deck feel, complete with wood benches and plants. This can then be part of a summer buskers concert series. Too often, parking spaces are just converted to outdoor cafe spaces in the summer. But this is a limited option for downtowns with few restaurants. Mini deck amphitheatres can give more shops the opportunity to sponsor or get involved in sidewalk ‘bump outs’ that temporarily convert parking spaces.

6. Give your audience After 5 Nights

Too often, After 5 Nights are the exclusive schmoozy domain of special events for chamber of commerce ‘movers and shakers’. Ugh. Your downtown’s needs are about more than satisfying movers and shakers. One of the biggest ongoing complaints from the public about small-town downtowns is that stores close after 5 pm, making it difficult for working folks to shop locally. Create Facebook ‘events’ for After 5 Shopping Nights that are for the public. Hold these Event nights when stores are typically not open after 5 pm. By creating a Facebook Event, you’ll also see who’s Going which can help you build a list of local shopping supporters. P.S. The great part about Facebook Events is that when a friend says they are Going to an event, their friends will also learn about it too. Facebook Events are simple ways to crowd source for events.

7. Host a My Idea Is…. weekend

The purpose here is to get people sharing their ideas and thoughts about “My downtown is important because….” or something similar. Hang extra large canvases on storefronts, provide markers, and invite the public to come on down, write down their thoughts, and then come in the store for some exclusive ‘thank you’ deals and giveaways. To qualify for the thank you deals, they simply have to take a photo of what they wrote on the canvas or post it on social media and then show what they posted to staff when they go in the store.

8. Host a Meet Your Local Store Owners Night

So many downtowns talk about how shops are owned by locals but often the public doesn’t know them, or they interact with an employee only. Sadly, the phrase “We are locally owned” has lost meaning and value because it’s too often just words that don’t create a genuine connection with real faces. It’s also now a phrase that has filtered into large franchise marketing. Host a night where each downtown store owner is outside on the sidewalk to greet passersby. Have the owner stamp a Passport called “I Met My Local Store Owners” that can be completed and handed in for free giveaways at the end of the night. Nothing says “C’mon in!” like a welcoming small-town store owner that you can also meet and say hello to.

9. Host a Show Your Downtown Love Day

Too often these kinds of ‘days’ are a marketing fail because they consist of an ad telling people to come out and shop, and by doing so, they will show their love. Um, marketing doesn’t work that way today. There is no call to action. You need to be inventive and unique. So try this. Create a two-hour street closure. Promote that you are doing a special outdoor crowd photo shoot in the downtown with people who care about downtowns, revitalizing them, and shopping locally. Everyone who participates in the giant photo shoot will receive a voucher after the photo is taken. You’ll need elevation to take the photo so inquire about a fire ladder truck, lift truck, or something to get your photographer up high. Beware of drone use in your downtown. Follow Transport Canada rules.

10. Planters and benches

When I visit many small-town downtowns I immediately notice two simple differences. Many attractive downtowns feature storefronts with flower planters directly in front of the stores, rather than, or in addition to, at the street curb where they are obscured by parked cars. It’s well known that flowers are attractants. Put them where you want to attract pedestrians…. at the doors of stores. Stop placing them just at the street curb in hopes speeding drivers will see them (they don’t). Secondly, try placing benches against storefronts rather than only at the curb. Who wants to sit at the curb and have a parked car and its exhaust greet you and your lungs? Let’s get people sitting directly in front of storefronts. Tip: If your downtown encourages awnings on storefronts, you’ll instantly have benches that are popular and welcoming stops for pedestrians. Getting creative directly in front of storefronts extends the storefront out into the public space and makes stores more welcoming.

Based in the woods and working far beyond, Gregg McLachlan is recognized as a leading trainer, professional videographer, creative marketing rethinker and rural social media strategist in southwestern Ontario. He works with small businesses and organizations who want to elevate their branding. He has been a conference and workshop guest speaker for rural downtown business associations, provincial government agencies, municipal economic development departments and tourism organizations, as well as provincial and national nonprofits. His new conference and workshop talks for 2018 are entitled, If it isn’t on social media, did it even happen?, and Tell Stories Or Die. These enlightening and engaging talks help organizations understand how social media is evolving and how to stay ahead and be effective. Contact Gregg at gregg@workcabincreative.ca

Learn more about Your Town Rising, a new initiative co-founded by Leslie and Gregg McLachlan and find out how you can bring them to your town