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10 things successful small-town downtowns do

10 things that successful small-town downtowns do

10 things successful small-town downtowns do

There are two kinds of small-town downtowns.

There are downtowns which are constantly trying new ideas and learning, and always trying to keep a sense of excitement and energy alive. The public notices these downtowns! Why? Because these downtowns have built a sense of community through activities, beautification, and understanding their audiences.

And then there are downtowns that just exist. They have few, if any events. There’s little coordination of anything. Storefront signage is a mish mash of professional and downright crappy. For these downtowns, it’s no wonder the public uses phrases like “the place is dead.” That’s a tough commentary to hear. But remember, perceptions don’t just materialize. They are borne, rightly or wrongly, by what people observe and hear. No small-town downtown has turned itself around by letting the talkers continue to talk and talk and talk and waiting for others to solve problems. It takes actions. And can-do leadership with vision.

Here are 10 things successful small-town downtowns do (and things your downtown can learn from):

Take note: Every one of these is doable and actionable now. That’s why successful downtowns are a success: They start doing. And through doing they kickstart revitalization

1. Gateway signage

Successful downtowns have great gateway signs. Sorry, many of those old 1980s banners, now discoloured and looking ragged, that get strung across the road are so yesterday. They might still have a place today, but they are secondary elements. You must have hardened gateway signage that immediately greets visitors upon arrival and creates a great first impression. Let visitors know they’re entering your downtown district, your heritage district, your arts block!

2. Sign plans

Successful downtowns know the damage and rundown perception created when store owners who don’t give a darn about professional storefront signage are allowed to pollute the visual appeal of a streetscape. Successful downtowns have signage plans. That means they have storefront standards, rules or regulations. They also have wayfinding signs for people walking on the street and for people driving through the downtown. They may have map poles, sandwich boards, storefront decals, billboards, perpendicular blade signs above storefront doors that are easy to see for sidewalk pedestrians, and more. Creating a sense of place and visual appeal may involve tough love and opposition from some retailers. But you can’t begin to create a sense of visual appeal if your downtown signage standards are non existent and crappy signs are allowed to persist. The public notices the lack of effort that goes into crappy signage. And the perception is ugly. You can’t afford that. Successful downtowns know that and they take action. Sign plans, while they obviously impact retailers, are first and foremost about creating a sense of place and attachment within the public about your downtown. To get them to care, you have to show you care.

3. Gathering places

Successful downtowns have beautiful gathering places such as a public square with tables and chairs, plants, and perhaps even a water fountain. These gathering places make people want to stay in the downtown for an extended period of time. And they help to get people to form an attachment to a place. How on earth do you expect tourists to visit and gather in your downtown if your own residents don’t have a public gathering place downtown where they love to hang out? It’s the sense of attachment that is so critical in getting people to care about their downtown. These public spaces become focal points for events, musicians, markets, etc. Far too many leaders of BIAs, chambers and boards of trades only think of attachment as how people feel about the shops. A downtown is living, breathing space that can be a community.

4. Regular events calendar

Successful downtowns have an events calendar. And that means real events! They don’t have unimaginative calendar-fillers to make it seem like it’s exciting. There’s actually planning involved, ideas that don’t make the cut, and a filter that gets used for every single event… Why will the pubic care about this? Successful downtowns are so creative and active they practically require an events guide. They know that having two weekend events in a calendar year do not explain the absence of any creativity for the other 50 weekends of the year. So they are constantly alive with events. Successful downtowns know and understand that people get attached to doing things, whether that’s a Girlfriends Getaway Weekend, or enjoying festivals, or walking up and down main street to see vehicles in a car show, a giant outdoor used book fair, or looking at public art on main street.

5. Curb appeal planning

Successful downtowns know that beautifying the area between the storefronts, sidewalks and road are critical to creating pedestrian curb appeal. Unless a friend has recommended a shop or they’ve read something on social media or overheard street talk, most first-time visitors to a shop make the decision to enter a based on curb appeal. That means there are frequently window boxes with flowers, planters in front of stores, sandwich boards, awnings, benches at the storefront (not at the curb), sidewalk art, etc. Successful towns have curb appeal throughout. That’s because they create a plan.

6. Information gathering about branding

Successful downtowns understand branding and know that it’s all about perception. The leadership understands that branding is what people think about you and what it means to experience you. Successful downtowns understand that the downtown is owned by the community, not the businesses. And that means getting regular citizens (not just the same old cliques) involved in making it a great place. That could mean school classes doing art projects, citizen-led events, walking tours with folks who have interesting stories about the town, etc. The leadership understands branding is not about putting more decals on windows, or suddenly deciding to do more posts on Facebook. Leaders understand that branding means they must gather information on how the public defines the brand of the downtown. (Please, no more anonymous surveys where people complain about the same old things like parking and store hours and no action is taken.) Successful downtowns get out and talk to shoppers and the public.

7. Uniform store hours

Successful downtowns develop uniform business hours to address one of the biggest complaints of consumers today: “I work and they’re not open after 5 pm!” This refrain never dies today thanks to social media. You can see endless posts from people complaining about this annoyance. Successful downtowns know they need to get a majority of downtown stores to agree to uniform hours. It’s sad seeing that one store staying open past 6 p.m. weekdays (or even Thursdays and Fridays) in a struggling downtown and wondering why the rest of the downtown is abandoning that store’s efforts to be more accessible to shoppers. You can’t develop a campaign about making improvements for shoppers if only one or two stores are committed. Successful downtowns know that having uniform hours helps, maybe not entirely, but helps in this age where people do most of their spending at night at home and online.

8. Knowledge building

Successful downtowns have active knowledge building initiatives, whereby experts (real experts) are brought in on a regular basis to provide insights to help businesses be successful. This is called providing support and leadership. This is called Wanting Everyone to be Successful.

9. Doing

Successful downtowns just start doing. They don’t sit around being inactive, passing the buck, blaming others, waiting for reports, compiling more studies that always end up sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Successful downtowns provide the freedom that encourages people who have ideas to implement them. Successful downtowns don’t bog ideas down with forming committees, holding numerous meetings, asking for the idea to be put into a 22-page proposal for consideration, etc. Successful downtowns uncomplicate the process of bringing creativity to main street. They know that doing 20 things and being successful at 12 of them means they know have 12 new initiatives. Conversely, the downtown that does only two things every year will never make much headway, if any.

10. Customer service training

Successful downtowns know that today in the social media era a downtown’s image can be seriously damaged by complaints about customer service. Word of mouth has a far greater reach today than in the 1980s. That means a snotty cashier or waiter or clerk can end up being the unwelcome poster child on Facebook or Twitter when someone has a negative experience in your town. Sure, store managers play a huge role in customer service training. But successful downtowns deliver that message as it relates to overall branding. And successful downtowns know that negativity often paints an entire downtown, not just the store where it happened.



Gregg McLachlan is recognized as a leading trainer, marketing rethinker and rural social media strategist in southwestern Ontario who 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, municipal economic development departments and tourism organizations, as well as provincial and national organizations. His newest conference and workshop talk, 2017 Is Sooooo Yesterday, helps organizations understand how social media is evolving and how to stay ahead and be effective. Contact Gregg at gregg@workcabincreative.ca


Gregg McLachlan
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Comments: 8

  • Kay Matthews
    November 24, 2017 1:46 pm

    Hi Gregg, I enjoyed this article. Thanks for taking the time to write this thoughtful article. The only thing I question is the Uniform Hours. I suspect you are talking about the Retail Stores only. This is something that is virtually impossible as each one of our BIA members has chosen to set up their business in a Downtown/BIA area because they are not ‘dictated’ to as they are in a mall. We need to respect their decisions and celebrate and focus on the ones that are more uniform, not on the negative. Just my thoughts!

  • Jenny Ball
    January 23, 2018 5:45 pm

    Great article Gregg. Thank you so much for this information.

  • Tom Burkett
    February 17, 2018 9:05 am

    I think that your ideas are Spot-On! It is easy for towns to fall into the traps that you mention. Moving them off high-center is the challenge. Perhaps your article will help a little.

  • Heather Hudson
    March 24, 2018 10:24 pm

    Wonderful article. Really worth reading and incorporating into our Welland downtown. Thank you so much for writing this.

  • Carol Doerfler
    November 29, 2018 11:33 pm

    I live in a Town ( Pop. 36,000 +) and within 50 miles of a metro area ,some describe us as a “bedroom community ” which it is, we also share a southern boundary with another City that is our State Capital there is no actual “downtown”, many businesses / strip malls along a major thoroghfare , there is an area around our City Hall that could be called a “community gathering place but it is off the main 2/3 streets . We are facing challenges of growth vs no-growth , possible UGB expansion and State mandated housing availability-
    Could you comment please

    I have been assigned to a Community Commission to discuss this-
    I am doing Google searches on small towns and found your article which I have found very informative-

  • Andrea Baumann
    April 5, 2020 8:42 am

    These suggestions are super relevant for just about any community I think, whether starting an organization geared towards new growth or simply revitalizing an existing effort. I’m so inspired reading this because in our current situation and health crisis all I hear is people asking what can we do or how can our local area recover! Perhaps now is the time – thank you for such a great post.

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