‘Placemaking’ an essential part of economic development

Published 9:06 am Saturday, May 13, 2017


Heart of Danville

The Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership is in the midst of an economic development strategic plan. The hired consultant has defined economic development as a series of strategic actions and investments made by a jurisdiction (or group of jurisdictions) with the intent of leveraging public assets to attract private investment targeted toward improving the financial, fiscal and economic well-being of the community. I think this definition fits for many communities, but I have constantly found myself asking: Where does this put the organizations that are traditionally seen as community development?

Email newsletter signup

I recently spent several days at the National Main Street Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Being surrounded by hundreds of Main Street directors across the country was inspiring, and also enlightening.

During the first night of the conference, we heard from Ed McMahon, a nationally known land conservator and a proponent of the importance of place. McMahon presented a new take on economic development — one that places community development and revitalization at the heart of economic development. According to McMahon, economic development is the result of creating places where people want to be, better known as “placemaking.”

When you think of Danville, what do you think of? A charming downtown? Your favorite downtown store, restaurant or event? Perhaps you think of the tree-lined streets and Constitution Square? I am no psychic, but I believe I can say that for the majority of you, whatever popped in your head has some connection to the work we do as a Main Street program and the sense of place you have for Danville.

Placemaking is dependent on identifying what makes us unique. There is an inherent value in distinctiveness and a unique community image, which has a direct impact upon economic development and quality of life.

According to the National Association of Realtors, “the place is becoming more important than the product.” People want to live and work in a place that is unique and vibrant. And uniqueness not only impacts the value of place, it also impacts a community’s competitive advantage.

In today’s world, sameness is a minus, not a plus. If we can’t differentiate our community, then we have no competitive advantage. Businesses want to relocate and expand, and entrepreneurs want to start businesses in communities with a distinct sense of place and community image.

All across the country, Main Street programs help facilitate critical components of a community’s image; they work toward building vibrant downtowns; and they create a positive community image. A community’s image is unique to each community but I believe there are assets that every Main Street community has to offer:

Compact, walkable places

Historic neighborhoods are walkable neighborhoods because they were built for a community planned on people, not automobiles. Even Danville, with our four lanes of traffic, was built for people. In historic photos of downtown, cars are parked in the middle of the street and there were only two lanes of traffic.

Unique retail, restaurants, attractions and events.

What screams “vibrant community” more than the locally owned and operated businesses in historic neighborhoods? Besides businesses, community events that spotlight our distinct character and keep downtown an active place add to the positive community image.

Historic buildings allow for mixed-use developments.

Very rarely do new construction projects plan for mixed-use developments or add to the charm of a community. The combination of businesses on the first floor and upper story living space is a common attribute of historic buildings in historic neighborhoods. Besides the use of space in historic buildings, the architecture and character that these buildings bring to a community is superior to none.

With all this being said I come back to my question I asked at the beginning: Why is it that Main Street programs are seen as community development instead of economic development? For more than 40 years, we have seen success in downtown revitalization — and 2016 was no different.

Throughout the United States, more than $71.3 billion was reinvested in 2016, creating 131,916 new businesses and 583,757 new jobs. On average, for every $1 of public money invested, there was $39.75 of private money spent.

Furthermore, the economic impact of Main Street creates a $6.50 return to the local economy for every $1 spent downtown.

The heart of Main Street programs is the revitalization of downtowns through creating vibrant areas filled with interesting businesses. We love the work we do and when we see people enjoying the place they call home, we know we are doing something right.

I believe that McMahon’s view of placemaking as economic development will allow us to create a place that will make people want to come downtown, stay longer, visit more frequently and spend more money.

Nick Wade is executive director of the Heart of Danville, the city’s Main Street program.