The unexpected entrepreneur

If you were asked to describe an entrepreneur, what words would you use?  Maybe terms like “bright, energetic, or magnetic.”  This 2004 article in the aptly named magazine Entrepreneur, gives a whole host of other terms, not all of them complimentary. 

Two descriptions of an entrepreneur that most people would not use are “ex-felon,” and “non-English speaking.”  However, it may just be these often overlooked sectors of your community could be an integral piece of your community’s economic restructuring.  In the classic Republic, Plato said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  If this is true, then those least able to obtain traditional employment should be those with the most entrepreneurial spirit.

Upholsterer and entrepreneur Troy Graves. Photo by Tara Bozick, Danville News.

Take Troy Graves.  This Danville resident spent a few years in prison, where he apprenticed as an upholsterer, eventually redoing a chair for the Governor’s office.  When he completed his incarceration, he had trouble finding steady work but was determined not to go back to his former ways.  With the help of a partnership with Virginia Enterprise Initiative, New Visions New Ventures and the Small Business Development Center, Troy was able to get business skills training, write a business plan, and obtain a microloan that allowed him to set up shop.   When this newspaper article hit the street, his phone rang off the hook and he has business lined up for the foreseeable future.  Troy is still building his credit, and hopes to own his building one day soon. 

And consider this positive story from National Public Radio from a place where positive stories have been few and far between.  It seems the one part of Detroit that is flourishing is the predominantly Latino neighborhood known as “Mexican Town.”  Many less developed economies have a strong entrepreneurial tradition; again, harkening back to Plato’s words about necessity.  The most entrepreneurial members of these societies often find a way to come to the United States and bring that spirit with them. 

Make sure you consider all aspects of your local business environment when planning your community’s future.  You just might find success in the most unexpected places.

These streets were made for walking

The weather has been perfect lately for a good walk, so on Sunday, I invited some retired friends for one.  They declined, choosing instead to join the centrifugal crush of their comfortably dressed peers at the mall.

A brisk walk in Old Town Manassas is a heart heathy activity in a vibrant setting.

The mall?  I couldn’t imagine any place I’d rather avoid at on a sunny afternoon, but it got me thinking.  Can downtowns tap the spending power of traditional mall walkers, at least when the weather is good? And even if they don’t shop or eat everytime they come down, just how many times could a walker pass well appointed shop windows without creating a mental inventory of downtown offerings?

My friends like the mall because of the climate control, because they can measure the number of laps, because there’s lots to look at, because there’s easy access to restrooms, and because they can buy a reward snack when they’re done.  But outside of climate control, mall walkers can have all of that downtown. So encourage them.

Here are some tips for starters:

  • Measure out a short circuit or two and rate them by difficulty. 
  • Give the routes fun names.
  • Build routes around existing historical and cultural walks.
  • Mark distances in chalk on the sidewalk or on a map, using stores as landmarks.
  • Invite a mall walking club to try it out en masse.
  • Hold an organized fun walk on a Saturday to introduce the route to a larger audience–start and end at the farmer’s market.
  • Set records to be beaten for the number of laps or time of completion.
  • Get a group of downtown workers – or Main Street voluneers – walking at lunchtime.
  • Encourage a merchant to offer a small incentive for walkers.
  • Partner with a local health care provider to create more formal signs as the program grows.
  • Make sure a public restroom is available.
  • Encourage a local cafe or coffee house to offer a Walker’s Reward healthy smoothie on their menu.
  • Encourage merchants to call walkers by name when they see them out.
  • Explore mall-walking club strategies for more tips.

Last month, Staunton Downtown Development Association (SDDA) initiated their monthly walkers club called Walk the Walk. Activate Martinsville Henry County reinforces sense of place in the traditional commercial district by including several Uptown Martinsville walks in their efforts to encourage  healthy lifestyles. What other tools encourage pedestrians in your downtown?  Let us know!

A Japanese city assesses its attraction of tourists, and its character

In the Virginia Department of Housing and  Community Development’s asset-based downtown planning process, the agency recommends that an out-of-town visitor be included in the assessment of the community and its potential. The reason: the uniqueness of place is often most overlooked by those who know it the best.  

The point was demonstrated a few weeks ago when a Giles County resident offered an anecdote about a house guest following up her visit by sending photographs.  “This one is beautiful,” her husband said upon seeing a bucolic mountain scene.  Where did you take it?”  

“From your back porch,” the guest responded.  

We get  accustomed to the some of our communities’ most precious assets. And it happens everywhere.  In Kyoto, Japan,  massive tourism developments such as a proposed aquarium have sparked a debate and raised awareness about the relevance of an attraction that could, frankly, be anywhere. Resources are limited. Pursuit of ‘anyplace’ strategies reduce investment in the assets inherent to the place. 

Japan draws in relatively few tourists with sites like Gion, a geisha district in Kyoto. The nation is torn about how to attract more.Hiro Komae for The New York Times.

Last week’s New York Times article on the debate offered: 

“Japan’s tourism strategy has also been driven by investment in engineering projects and theme parks rather than the protection of the country’s natural and cultural riches, an oversight that some experts say has cost the country dearly in tourism dollars.”

With Main Street’s asset-based approach, we’re constantly reminded of the value of historic structures and their roles as economic assets, not just for tourism, but in the quality of life of those who choose to live, work, and shop there.  

Every community (from Narrows, Virginia to Nagasaki, Japan) has unique cultural and natural assets potentially important to the community and economic development strategies.  What are yours?

Rightsizing traffic for a people-friendly place

Downtown revitalization is problem solving with a wide variety of variables, and while we share best practices, each community must develop its own strategies and solutions. Take the problematic pedestrian-automobile relationship.

The 1970’s pedestrian mall solution of removing cars altogether worked in a few places but not in most, and it turns out that the  most workable response for most communities lies somewhere in the middle of the people-car spectrum.  (While New York City works out its complicated relationship between pedestrians and Broadway’s swarm of yellow cabs  by replacing traffic lanes with bike lanes, cafe tables, and moveable chairs, Sacramento, California is repopulating the discomfortingly sparse K Street Pedestrian Mall with cars. )

Yonah Freemark covered these shifts in Next American City, pointing to some of the local variables that make or break walkable districts. In addition to population density and use of the area, transit access, surrounding traffic patterns and terrain can all play a part. 

Virginia Main Street communities range in their approaches to creating pedestrian-friendly environments. Winchester’s Loudoun Street Mall –the commonwealth’s first pedestrian mall, dedicated in 1974 — is getting a boost with ongoing converstion of new luxury apartments.  That should help boost population density and mall vibrancy.

In Manassas, 2009’s Battle Street project converted two way streets to narrower one-way streets, lining both sides with wider sidewalks and the tables for the district’s many restaurants, making every summer evening feel a bit like the neighborhood block party.  Cars still pass, but more slowly.

In Martinsville, Uptown’s circular track of multiple lane traffic is being given a second look in consideration of slower two-way traffic that might be friendlier to pedestrians. But the proposal has prompted a variety of opinions. And that’s understandable.  Change is tough–especially when a variety of users experience a place differently. 

Business  owners, shoppers, and drivers trying to get around and through a community are all heavily invested. Engaging these stakeholders is critical in finding the car-people mix. The conversation must involve not only transportation planners but specialists who understand pedestrian safety and comfort. Most importantly, it must be built upon clearly articulated community goals.  While the solution is unique to the community, you really can’t get to it if you haven’t defined the problem.

Virginia Main Street announces Downtown Improvement Grant opportunity for designated communities

In an ongoing celebration of the Virginia Main Street’s 25th anniversary, the Virginia Main Street program has announced a rare funding opportunity specifically for designated Virginia Main Street communities.  Downtown Improvement Grants of up to $2,500 per designated community are now available for special, one-time projects. 

The grant opportunity is designed to offer communities the ability to complete a Main Street-related project for which financial resources are not otherwise available.  Applications must be submitted by 5 p.m. May 21, 2010.

Read the grant announcement for more information on the application process.

Be a virtual attendee at the Main Streets conference

If your travel budget didn’t allow  you to connect with peers from across the country in Oklahoma, you can still take a little time out of your day this afternoon or tomorrow to virtually attend one these upcoming presentations from the National Main Streets Conference taking place now in Oklahoma City.  Just visit the Web site at the designated time to watch the stream. 

The Main Street Awards
Tuesday May 4, 6 p.m.

Even if you cannot be there in person, you can still be among the first to hear the names of the five winners of the 2010 Great American Main Street Awards®. Hear the stories of the 2010 Main Street Leadership Award winners: Washington State Main Street Coalition and their innovative use of social media and traditional advocacy tactics to save the statewide Main Street coordinating program through legislative action.; and the Michigan Main Street Center for their leadership in developing a national “Shop Main Street” media campaign and video, which they co-branded with the National Trust Main Street Center® and distributed through television and social media outlets.

The Closing Session
Wednesday May 5, 12:45 p.m.

Author of Green Building and Remodeling for Dummies and green architect Eric Corey Freed will walk us through his creative and bizarre world of sustainable design. Experience the rapid advancements in green building and discover the latest systems to save energy, water and resources.

Virginia Main Street 2009 annual report available online

In 2009 Virginia’s 21 designated communities employed a variety of organizational, design, promotional, and economic restructuring strategies to foster vibrant commercial districts.

The Virginia Main Street 2009 Annual Report provides a summary of each community’s unique efforts and an overview of how, over the past 25 years, the program has sparked a total of more than $638 million in private investment in Virginia’s downtowns.