Enhance the Downtown Experience

February 22, 2022

Most of our memories are directly associated with a PLACE. We go back to places where we’ve had positive experiences. We must strive to keep Downtown a “go to” destination for community residents and visitors, not simply a place to avoid or drive through on our way somewhere else.

The Iowa Downtown Resource Center has conducted Downtown Assessments and Walk Arounds services in over 150 Iowa communities. Although every downtown is different, they face many of the same challenges. Downtowns often have visual and aesthetic issues that affect their ability to attract quality businesses, investors, shoppers and residents. These deterrents are often taken for granted by long term residents. We can ALL do better.

The cold winter months serve as a good time to sit back, evaluate a downtown’s strengths and weaknesses and plan projects/activities that can enhance the downtown experience.

I group suggestions for possible projects/activities into the following two areas:

Downtown Maintenance: Some downtowns make you feel more welcome than others – simply because of the way they LOOK. No one feels welcome (or safe) walking down a sidewalk that’s in disrepair, seeing weeds that appear to flourish, broken or windows that are dirty, litter scattered everywhere, cigarette butts all about, signs directing them to a business that has been closed for years, etc.

Long-term residents may no longer notice these items, but those visiting your community most certainly DO. These observations can cause a visitor’s first impression of your downtown to be a NEGATIVE one. A common saying is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Be sure to take the steps now to make sure the first impressions of your downtown are POSITIVE!

How about these ideas...

  1. Plan a volunteer downtown cleanup event, perhaps twice a year. Wash windows, clean up trash and clean the alleys. Enlist the support of garden club and service organizations, schools, churches and other organizations. Have FUN with this. Provide food after the event and thank your volunteers. Have a door prize. Take lots of photos. This is a great way to start a volunteer list for the future too! Give kudos to property owners that do a great job keeping care of their buildings, sidewalks and greenspaces spic and span. Instill community pride in those ALREADY in town.
  2. Obsolete business signs. Take that “hardware sign“ down for the store that went out of business 20 years ago. Don’t REMIND people of business closures or what the downtown USED to possess.
  3. Weeds! Extremely important. Establish a way to address this problem not just once but continuously. Would a new action team or an existing organization agree to tackle this project?
  4. Give downtown users every opportunity to dispose of trash the RIGHT way. Inventory your trash receptacles. Are there plenty? Do they look good? Are they located in high traffic areas? Make some decisions. Work with a school organization to repair, paint or even create receptacles that look good! Establish a vacant building action team whose purpose is to improve the visual appearance of every vacant, downtown building. Clean the windows and window display areas; use donated linens to make curtains for upper story windows. Fill vacant windows with displays from non-profits or perhaps other businesses. Create attractive, “business opportunity” signs for store windows or “this building would make a great bakery.” Be sure to include the contact information should someone have an inquiry.

Downtown Walking Experience: Amenities enhance the look, feel and experience a downtown district can offer visitors. Many communities are discovering the rich benefits of providing a sense of place to its guests by creating a unique atmosphere instead of a stark, empty streetscape. Use local design talent and creativity to create something UNIQUE. Engage people by providing something every 20 feet.

  1. Visit other communities! What do they do well? What do they do to create a positive environment for users of their downtowns? Take notes and pictures.
  2. Public art is a great way to strengthen your downtown identity and provides something interesting for pedestrians. Weave art into the fabric of downtown through signage, seating, bike racks, trash receptacles, murals, stand-alone art pieces and gateway features. Sponsor a public art contest. Use local talented artists to help with your plans. Many communities have done creative paint projects in the street or on unusual downtown amenities such as a bike rack or even a manhole cover.
  3. Creative benches, chairs and tables create gathering places for a quick respite. Encourage businesses to do the same and offer casual outdoor seating along their storefronts. Create seating in strategic locations where people feel safe and not to impede pedestrian traffic. Public seating can be fun and whimsical as well as functional.
  4. Bicycle parking and rentals are popular in our health-conscious culture. Enhance your existing walking and biking trails by offering these items.
  5. Install a speaker system to provide music downtown during peak hours, throughout the holiday season, during festivals and events.
  6. Work to make sure the lighting installed maintains a pedestrian scale. Utilize banner supports on the light poles to add color and promote your downtown, its history, upcoming events, etc. Well-maintained light poles, fixtures and banners shows pride in your community.
  7. The results of surveys taken in most communities the Iowa Downtown Resource Center has visited, almost always reflect the desire to have more landscaping with sidewalk flower planters, hanging pots and street trees.
  8. Business signage can be a strong asset in your downtown. Can you stand in front of a downtown business, be proud of the sign and know what kind of business this is by looking at the sign? If the answer is no, perhaps it is time for a CHANGE. Many communities have done specialty grant programs for things like business signs, opening boarded up windows and pulling down false, aluminum storefronts.

All downtown leaders are encouraged to evaluate their downtown amenities and develop a plan to make improvements. Be one of those communities that people think of when identifying well-kept, interesting downtowns!

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